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Cliff Schecter Headshot

Transparency Or Transparently Corrupt: What Kind Of Government Do We Want?

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I had a client a few years back named Onvia. Onvia provided better and more timely information than the federal government, regarding where stimulus dollars were going and how they were being used:

The Obama administration promised openness regarding stimulus spending because many critics said the $787 billion package won congressional approval in February too quickly, and with too few safeguards.

Ryan Alexander, president of the Washington-nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, thinks a free, private-sector Web site with a similar name -- Recovery.org -- does a better job of listing bid-ready federally funded projects that government entities are advertising or awarding nationwide.

People can log onto Recovery.org and learn, for example, that as of Sept. 5, Allegheny County was scheduled to receive the most stimulus-related money of any county in Pennsylvania -- $775.8 million for 154 projects that include stimulus funding.

A few more clicks and that Web site reports that, as of Sept. 5, contractors could bid on 123 projects in Pittsburgh and two in Greensburg. The site lists each project's location; estimated cost; owner and type, such as PennDOT construction; and number of affiliated jobs.

As you can imagine, Recovery.org pressured Recovery.gov to get better, to be more open and complete in the information the government site provided. Because transparency begets more transparency, and open information is the only antidote to the instincts of both corporate and government entities to hide it behind walls, or firewalls.

Another open-data program with which I have worked is called City Forward. What are they doing? Simply allowing you to access, through "explorations," all sorts of data that lets you know how cities are spending their money, how they compare to other urban centers, and interact with reams of data to get a picture of how green they might be or how many jobs they might have lost. Do you want to know whether Baltimore or St. Louis is doing a more effective job fighting crime? Or whether landing the Olympics actually helps employment? Or what the impact of the recession has been on the "collar counties" of Chicago?

Yup, as the kids say, there's an ap...or exploration, for that. And this can only be another positive development for honest and open government.

Yet, progress never comes without a fight. Data.gov, Apps.gov, USAspending.gov, and Paymentaccuracy.gov are sites that help the government operate more effectively and efficiently, saving taxpayer money and helping public oversight. They increase citizen knowledge of and involvement in the democratic process. Data.gov launched a few years ago, with New York and San Francisco, only months later, introducing their own sites for detailed, city-specific data. and Data.gov.uk launched not too long after. A movement for open government was clearly been building momentum, and the popularity of data itself in other sectors continues to rise.

However, in the coming months, these open data sites are set to be shuttered in another bow to the budget. Just fyi, we're looking at the budget being reduced to $2 million...from the current annual budget of $37 million. You know, only about a 94.6% cut, give or take.

You know what happens when you do this. As The Sunlight Foundation (a non-profit, nonpartisan organization committed to improving access to government information by making it available online and by creating new tools and websites to enable individuals and communities to better access that information and put it to use) points out, this is what happens:

As the chairman of AAN, [former Senator Norm] Coleman knows who donated money to ad campaigns that favored conservative candidates. The public doesn't. As a non-lobbyist lobbyist, Coleman knows whose interests he represents before Congress. The public doesn't. He can encourage his corporate clients at his new firm to contribute to ANN. He can decide the political races in which ANN will run ads. He can let his former Senate colleagues know that, either as a favor or as a threat, AAN will spend heavily for or against their re-election campaigns.

Efforts to uncover dark money contributions to elections through legislation failed. Even a modest effort by the Obama administration to require disclosure of dark money by government contractors is being met with vigorous opposition by groups representing corporate donors.

In an open letter to Congress last week, the Sunlight Foundation - offered this plea to lawmakers to not slash funding for the federal government's transparency programs:

"An open and accountable government is a prerequisite for democracy. Keeping these programs alive would cost a mere pittance when compared to the value of bringing the federal government into the sunlight. As you consider the budget for the remainder of this year, please sustain funding for these vital transparency programs."

Will you sign the Sunlight pledge? I hope you will, because as Winston Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others."

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