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Sunlight's Miller Takes a Dim View of Obama's Transparency

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 7 2010

Using a somewhat more compressed time frame than Californian Carl Malamud favors, the DC-based Sunlight Foundation used the example of a supposed $1.3 trillion worth of missing or wrong data in a federal spending database to make the argument that the 20-month-old Obama administration's "drive for data transparency has stalled," in the words of Sunlight executive director Ellen Miller, delivered this morning at Gov 2.0.

The USASpending.gov site has its roots, actually, to President Obama's time in the Senate, when he and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn teamed up to sponsor a "Google for Government." Miller is not too impressed. "It's pretty impressive -- looking," burned Miller. "Unfortunately, its data is almost useless." Sunlight's tech team compared more than 10 million data rows from the spending site and other data sources, she said, and found the "broken reporting" of that $1.3 trillion in government spending, where some numbers were too big, some too small, and some just not there at all." Sunlight's launched a project called Clear Spending to follow up on the investigation.

"When we say things just don't add up," said Miller, "that's indeed precisely what we mean."

Miller had harsh words for some of the other flagship open data projects touted by the Obama administration. "Data.gov started with enormous promise," she said, but "it's still pretty mediocre as a data repository." Recovery.gov, she said, "is little more than a qualified success."

Miller sees discouraging trends in the inside baseball of White House staffing, pointing to the recent departures from the administration by OMB director Peter Orszag and White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen, both seen as open gov champions. "We're beginning to worry that the [Obama] administration is more interested in style than substance." she said.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation. // Correction: In my transcription, I swapped two words in the last line. It has been corrected.

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