Seven years ago today, WikiLeaks published 6,700 CRS reports…and nobody was hurt

Feb. 8, 2009 began like any other Sunday for me. I was up early taking care of a young child, gulping coffee and scanning the news. The New York Times turned my stomach with its report that a Polish engineer had been beheaded by the Taliban. The Grey Lady also gleefully described the tribulations of Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele. A happier bit of news came fromThe Washington Post. Its sports section reminded me that my Cleveland Cavs were playing the Los Angeles Lakers on television at 3:30 that afternoon.

At some point that morning, I managed to get online. (I did not have a smartphone back then.) The Internet was abuzz with speculation about the 51st Grammy Awards, which were that night. (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss would fare well.) And there sat an email from a colleague of mine at the Congressional Research Service, asking if I had heard that WikiLeaks had published a trove of our reports.

I hadn’t.

Julian Assange’s outfit announced its work online with relish:

Change you can download. WikiLeaks has released nearly a billion dollars worth of quasi-secret reports commissioned by the United States Congress. The 6,780 reports, current as of this month, comprise over 127,000 pages of material on some of the most contentious issues in the nation, from the U.S. relationship with Israel to the financial collapse. Nearly 2,300 of the reports were updated in the last 12 months, while the oldest report goes back to 1990. The release represents the total output of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) electronically available to Congressional offices. The CRS is Congress’s analytical agency and has a budget in excess of $100M per year.

My stomach fell, and various thoughts ran through my mind. What would happen at the office? Were my reports in the trove? (Answer: yes.) My email address and 5-digit phone extension were on our reports. Would lobbyists and angry members of the public start contacting us to complain about our work?

That week at the office, I and many other CRS employees jabbered anxiously in the hallways and over coffee about how this could have happened and what it meant for the agency.

As it happened, the WikiLeaks massive report dump had no effect on us. In my succeeding six years at the agency not once did I hear any employee report any harm had resulted. The reason was not difficult to discern: many, if not most, of the CRS reports already had been put online by the Federation of American Scientists and various agencies of the U.S. government itself. Lobbyists and other hyperpolitical sorts inclined to pressure CRS already had our reports, often acquired via pricy subscription services.

This bit of history is important to keep in mind as Congress considers legislation to expand public access to CRS reports. There are individuals on Capitol Hill who claim bad things will happen if this commonsensical reform is enacted. The WikiLeaks report dump demonstrates that posting CRS reports to a central public repository (like GPO.gov) will do no harm to either CRS or its employees.

Today, more than 27,000 copies of CRS reports are scattered about the Internet. The average citizen, however, does not know where to look for them or what keywords will bring them up in Google. (Compare this search versus this search.) It’s way past time for Congress to give the public some value for the $100 million it spends on CRS each year.

Will the needless secrecy surrounding CRS reports end this year?

Not quite a year back, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., sought to do a little good for the American public. He offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would require the Congressional Research Service to post publicly a list of the titles of its reports. Advocates for taxpayers and proponents for government transparency were delighted.

The CRS is an agency in the Library of Congress. Its staff of civil servants produce 1,000 or more reports each year. CRS reports describe government agencies (e.g., the Federal Election Commission); explain policies (e.g., SNAP/food stamps); and tally government spending (e.g., Department of Defense appropriations). Congress does not release these nonpartisan reports as a matter of course, but those within the Beltway know where to find copies. More than 20,000 congressional staff have access to CRS reports, so access is not an issue for lobbyists and policy-insiders.

Quigley explained to House appropriators that CRS reports “often are extraordinarily well-done” and that making the reports available to the public “would empower our constituents with extraordinary information about key issues, policies, and the budgets we are debating here in Congress.” Taxpayers pay $107 million per year to fund CRS and none of its reports contain classified or confidential information. Additionally, two other legislative branch agencies – the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office – already release their reports publicly. (See here for a dozen other arguments for public release of CRS reports.)

Quigley’s amendment would not have made the contents of the reports public. All it would have done is enable the public to better know what reports exist. Having a list would enable John Q. Public to more easily request copies of CRS reports through their members of Congress. Quigley’s measure also would have been helpful to congressional staff, who labor to respond to constituents’ vague requests. (“I heard there was a report on agriculture that talked about subsidies. Can you get it for me?”)

Sadly, Quigley’s amendment never got a vote or even a discussion. Someone in the room disliked the amendment and Quigley reluctantly withdrew it.

The whole scene was bizarre and out-of-character for the House, which has shown great willingness to open legislative information and data to the public. No possible harm could come from publishing a list of CRS reports. In fact, such lists have been produced for decades. The CRS publishes an annual report for Congress that details its achievements and enumerates all its new reports, complete with their titles and authors’ names. It would be very easy for the CRS to post these reports on its website. Instead, the agency devotes time and expense to post a redacted version of its annual report that omits the list of reports. Why? Possibly, the House Committee on Administration requires it. But nobody will say publicly.

However, all is not lost. One can find the lists of CRS’s nonredacted annual reports online. Older copies placed long ago in federal depository libraries have been digitized in recent years. (See here for example.) Copies of CRS’ lists of reports for Congress from the past 20 years have been posted online by government transparency advocates (see here and here). These workarounds are not ideal, but they are helpful.

And what about Rep. Mike Quigley? He has not reintroduced his amendment thus far. But that does not mean he has given up the fight. Rather, he joined forces with Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who wrote legislation calling on CRS to publish entire CRS reports—not just a list of them— on the House Clerk’s website.

Congress will not be in DC much this year, thanks to the election. One hopes it can muster the wee bit of energy needed to put an end to the needless secrecy surrounding CRS reports. The public supports open government and would be grateful for increased access to honest information about their government’s doings.

Annual Report of the Congressional Research Service 2014 by R Street Institute

What America needs in the next House Chief Administrative Officer

The Chief Administrative Officer is one of the most important but low profile staffers that makes the House of Representatives work. The CAO runs an office with a huge mandate. It manages critical technology services, oversees and coordinates the financial reporting system, ensures that the press have smooth access to legislative proceedings, handles physical resources like maintenance of certain office equipment, and much more. Ed Cassidy, the current House Chief Administrative Officer, will retire at the end of this year. His departure leaves a strong legacy of open government and public engagement initiatives and highlights the need for a strong leader to fill this role and continue to bring Congress into the 21st century.

While the Speaker of the House gets to pick next CAO, the Congressional Data Coalition has specific traits we would like to see in whomever fills this vital role.

The most important trait for the next CAO to possess is experience in creating transformative change in a large institution. Congress needs an overhaul from the paper and poorly automated systems of yester-century that drives down efficiency and snarls everything in red tape. It’s time for the House to move fully to digital processes by rethinking the ways things are done and how they are assessed. Congress needs a leader who understands this issue and can drive the change.

The ideal candidate for the House’s CAO should also be a:

  • Strong manager and team builder.
  • Advocate for public-private partnerships.
  • Compelling communicator to the public and those in Congress.
  • Champion of technology who is familiar with the importance of machine-readable, structured data.

The goals for the next House’s CAO should be to:

  • Recognize that providing more information to the public and better information to legislators helps Congress do its job effectively.
  • Explore opportunities to move paper and physical operations to digital systems, along with making underlying processes more efficient and effective.
  • Overhaul the Office of Finance with modern budgeting, reporting and compliance software to empower legislators to better manage and report their finances, including producing information about activities in open data formats.
  • Embrace open source software so the public can review and contribute to the tools that run their Congress.
  • Make it radically easier for small/medium-sized companies to do business with the House.
  • Modernize the hardware in all committee hearing rooms and the recording studio.
  • Review and reassess CAO’s mission in 21st Century.

We are eager to see who fills this important role and work with them to seize the opportunity to continue modernizing congressional operations.

Open Government Data Aids Congressional Oversight

According to the U.S. Constitution, Congress is supposed to maintain watchful eye over the executive branch. These days, there is just no way that Congress can do that. The executive branch has 4.1 million employees, 180 agencies, and spends $3.9 trillion each year. The people’s branch needs help, and open government data enables individuals outside Congress to help with oversight. Read more in my article for the Public Administration Times.

Congress Poised for Leap to Open Up Legislative Data

Following bills in Congress requires three major pieces of information: the text of the bill, a summary of what the bill is about, and the status information associated with the bill. For the last few years, Congress has been publishing the text and summaries for all legislation moving in Congress, but has not published bill status information. This key information is necessary to identify the bill author, where the bill is in the legislative process, who introduced the legislation, and so on.

While it has been in the works for a while, this week Congress confirmed it will make “Bill Statuses in XML format available through the GPO’s Federal Digital System (FDsys) Bulk Data repository starting with the 113th Congress,” (i.e. January 2013).  In “early 2016,” bill status information will be published online in bulk– here. This should mean that people who wish to use the legislative information published on Congress.gov and THOMAS will no longer need to scrape those websites for current legislative information, but instead should be able to access it automatically.Continue Reading

Second Congressional Hackathon a Great Success

On Friday, the House of Representatives held its second Congressional Hackathon, co-hosted by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.InHackWeTrust flag

The major, unstated purpose of the hackathon was to bring people together to sustain the effort to modernize technology in congress. The hackathon did exactly that, gathering congressional staff, legislative support staff, and members of the public to build those relationships in a constructive atmosphere. It was an incredible success.Continue Reading

House Open Source Caucus Launch Event

As we previously discussed, there’s a new Open Source Technology Caucus launching in the U.S. House of Representatives. And there’s a launch party tomorrow! Details from our friends at the OpenGov Foundation:

Please join The OpenGov Foundation in celebrating the official launch of the House Open Source Caucus, led by Congressmen Jared Polis and Blake Farenthold. The Open Source Caucus has been leading the way in incorporating new open source technology in the House of Representatives since June’s announcement that, for the first time, Members, Committees, and staff within the House of Representatives are permitted to use and contribute to open source software.

We are excited to support the Open Source Caucus in their work, and invite you to celebrate their strong start.

WHEN
WHERE
Innovation House – 21 D St. SE Washington, DC 20003

RSVP: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/house-open-source-caucus-launch-tickets-19060357041

More info on Congressional Hackathon

Today Reps. Hoyer and McCarthy released more information on the upcoming Congressional Hackathon. Here is the press release. The Congressional Data Coalition will be hosting a happy hour afterward.


 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (MD-5) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-23) today announced details of the upcoming Second Congressional Hackathon that will take place next week on Friday, October 23, 2015 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.Continue Reading

Counting Up Congressional Technology Spending for 2014 – The U.S. Senate

How much does the United States Congress spend on technology and digital media?

It is a devilishly simple question, but I have yet to find a clear answer after nearly seven years working in and around the legislative branch. Finding the answer is a critical early step, however, in building an efficient, effective Congress that can fulfill its responsibilities in the 21st Century. That is something in which all Americans have a stake.

Does Congress spend the proper amount on technology? Is that money being spent on the correct technology products, vendors, and services? These are far more important questions that grow more pressing each day — constituent mail volume rose 548% between 2002-2010, while office resources to deal with it have been slashed 21% since 2011, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

This is the new normal. Yet without accurate spending information, you are stuck guessing as to the best way to deal with this new reality, whether you work on or off Capitol Hill. Moreover, those outside Congress who care about improving the legislative branch – as we do at The OpenGov Foundation – can only provide the right support at the right time to the right people in Congress if we know how and where to help.

Fortunately, groundbreaking work done by the Congressional Management Foundation, the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute, the Congressional Data Coalition, the Sunlight Foundation, and others has supplied some critical pieces of the puzzle. The following is inspired by them and their vital research. If you want to build off my work, you can find source data, crunched numbers, and methodology at the end of this post.

Right now, discussions are underway on and off Capitol Hill about what direction Congress should take with technology, data and staff. No one has the answer, but there are many amazing people in and around Congress working together towards one; it is my hope that this initial analysis will contribute to these efforts.Continue Reading

Library of Congress, GPO Should Publish the Digitized Congressional Record

At a meeting in April, the Government Publishing Office announced its collaboration with the Library of Congress to digitize all bound volumes of the Congressional Record from 1873-1998. The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress.

The digitization project is pursuant to a 2010 Joint Committee on Printing letter. GPO explained at the April meeting that it had digitized all of the volumes and the “[Library Services and Content Management business unit] was in the acquisitions process for the next step of reviewing the digital content and creating descriptive metadata.”

GPO and the Library should release the digitized volumes now. Even without metadata, the Congressional Record could be searched and put to other uses. Other digitization projects concerning documents held by the Library have taken years while descriptive metadata was created. By contrast, a volunteer-led effort to create descriptive metadata for the Statutes of Large took a matter of months and cost the government nothing. Continue Reading