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All the Data You Wanted From Govt But Were Afraid to Ask For?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, June 8 2009

Right now, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's blog is in the middle of the second, "Discussion," phase of its unique effort to engage the public online in fleshing out the details of President Obama's Open Government Directive. After a bit of a rocky start, with a flood of semi-disruptive posts from "birthers," the conversation seems to be finding its footing. A new post by Robynn Sturm, titled "Transparency: Open Government Operations," raises some interesting questions and is generating equally stimulating answers. She writes:

As the Obama Administration contemplates new approaches to making government more open, we want to hear from you. What do you – the non-profit fighting in the public interest, the company creating jobs for Americans, the journalist engaged in newsgathering, the teacher of civics, the mother and interested citizen – need to know about the way government works in order to feel more knowledgeable, to be empowered to participate, and to hold government accountable?

She then notes that government openness can't be evaluated without taking into account the costs it may impose on agencies tasked with providing more up-to-date information, the intrusions it may impose on valuable behind-the-scenes consultation with knowledgeable stakeholders, and the potential for overwhelming citizens with too much detail, and asks the public for its views on where to strike the balance. (Personally, given how often the default setting for government seems to do less, release less, and say less, my attitude is to err on the side of abundance--give us too much information rather than too little).

The best part of Sturm's post, however, is her last paragraph: "Tell us the three most important pieces of information you think every agency should be required to disclose about its operations," she asks, adding, "While you are at it, tell us how the private sector and government can best 'mash up' such information (e.g. mapping campaign contributions against meeting schedules) to transform raw data into knowledge."

Hmm, mapping campaign donations against meeting schedules? Can we have more?

The answers trickling in are equally suggestive. One reader suggests looking "at the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database (http://farm.ewg.org/farm/), which is built on 15+ years of data obtained under FOIA from USDA" and offers a highly detailed look at the irrationality of US agricultural subsidies. Another suggests that every government employee be required to create their own Facebook page where they answer the question, "What are you working on?" And one Jane Mansbridge, who I assume is the Harvard professor, offers a succinct and useful explanation of how to "distinguish between transparency in process and transparency in rationale." She writes:

The U.S. Supreme Court does not have transparency in process (rightly in my view) but is required to provide transparency in rationale.

When there are good reasons to protect candid speech (as in almost any sensitive negotiation), the balance shifts toward transparency in rationale (and against transparency in process). When there are good reasons to suspect self-serving dealing (for example, a history of corruption or favoritism in an agency), the balance shifts toward transparency in process. In any particular case, a decision on the appropriate degree of transparency should consider both sets of reasons.

This is great stuff. It will be interesting to see how these ideas get converted into actionable recommendations and concrete steps by government agencies.

Bonus link: US CIO Vivek Kundra posts on the OSTP blog, asking how best to grow Data.gov, the new repository of open government data resources he is building.

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