Save the Date: 1st of 2 Multidisciplinary Hackathons on U.S. Congressional Data & Processes

Boston Kickoff Weekend Co-Hosted by Harvard University’s Ash Center and The OpenGov Foundation; Finals on Capitol Hill Spring 2015

The weekend of January 30, 2015, The OpenGov Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will host a multi-disciplinary hackathon to design what the future of the US Congress should look like.

The event will bring together political scientists, designers, technologists, lawyers, organizational psychologists, and lawmakers to look for multi-layered, thoughtful ways for citizens to get involved in their government, and for elected officials to better communicate with citizens and understand their needs, more efficiently craft legislation, and more effectively address the complex issues of the 21st Century.

Projects presented at the end of the hackathon will be evaluated by a panel of judges. After a second hackathon hosted by The OpenGov Foundation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in spring 2015, the winning teams will have an opportunity to present their projects to lawmakers and other high-level officials inside Congress.

The event is co-sponsored by The Sunlight Foundation, Congressional Management Foundation, Microsoft New England, CODE2040, and Generation Citizen.

You can register here.

Schedule:
Friday, January 30, 2015
4:10pm: Introductory Panel followed by happy hour

Saturday, January 31 and Sunday, February 1, 2015
8:30am- 5 p.m.: Hackathon

Location:

Harvard Kennedy School of Government
79 JFK St., Cambridge, MA

View/submit project proposals:
https://hackpad.com/Hack4Congress-kiKLDML5Rr9

Click here for more information.

Collection of CRS reports released to the public

Something rare has occurred—a collection of reports authored by the Congressional Research Service has been published and made freely available to the public. The 400-page volume, titled, “The Evolving Congress,” and was produced in conjunction with CRS’s celebration of its 100th anniversary this year. Congress, not CRS, published it. (Disclaimer: Before departing CRS in October, I helped edit a portion of the volume.)

The Congressional Research Service does not release its reports publicly. CRS posts its reports at CRS.gov, a website accessible only to Congress and its staff. The agency has a variety of reasons for this policy, not least that its statute does not assign it this duty. Congress, with ease, could change this policy. Indeed, it already makes publicly available the bill digests (or “summaries”) CRS produces at Congress.gov.

The Evolving Congress” is a remarkable collection of essays that cover a broad range of topic. Readers would be advised to start from the beginning. Walter Oleszek provides a lengthy essay on how Congress has changed over the past century. Michael Koempel then assesses how the job of Congressman has evolved (or devolved depending on one’s perspective). “Over time, both Chambers developed strategies to reduce the quantity of time given over to legislative work in order to accommodate Members’ other duties,” Koempel observes.

The Evolving Congress“’s 20 remaining essays are devoted to close-up looks at Congress (e.g., Members demography, congressional staff) and how policy gets made (e.g., the rushed establishment of DHS, the perennial extension of tax breaks). All together, the essays inform the reader how Congress, despite its evident dysfunction, does get some things done—often in creative ways.

If anything, “The Evolving Congress” provides further evidence that CRS’s reports should be released to the public. Congress and federal policy are complex, often maddeningly so. Freeing CRS’s reports would give the public something tangible in return for the $107 million it pays for CRS’s operations: an oasis of unbiased information in an Internet awash with half-truths and outright buncombe. And unlike most political science research, CRS’s work tends to be easy to read.

Hopefully, the 114th Congress will end this policy and post CRS reports online at Congress.gov.


CRS The Evolving Congress (December 2014) by Kevin R. Kosar

Kevin R. Kosar is the Director of the Governance Project and a Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute. He worked at the Congressional Research Service from 2003-2014.

Opengov groups call on legislatures around the globe to embrace open data

(via Sunlight)

Sunlight is thrilled to mark Global Legislative Openness Week with our global legislative transparency campaign, which culminated earlier this week in a joint letter from the world’s parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) sent to national legislatures across the globe.

The letter calls for increased legislative transparency and parliamentary open data, and affirms the importance of legislative institutions and NGOs as partners in strengthening democracy. It is also an invitation for increased collaboration, offering help to legislatures in embracing new technology.

In the short time since we solicited endorsements, we’ve been nothing short of astounded by the response we’ve gotten from the community of PMOs throughout the world. In part, that’s due to the unique strength of the PMO network we’ve built along with the National Democratic Institute and theLatin American Network for Legislative Transparency; it also demonstrates NGOs’ appetite for both transparency and for coordinated international advocacy.

One hundred nine PMOs from 54 countries have endorsed the letter, along with a variety of other supporting organizations.1 The letter has also been translated into 14 languages, for a total of 20 translations (including regional variations). With groups’ help from around the world, we have submitted the letter to 191 legislative bodies in 130 different countries and the EU.

Many legislatures are demonstrating an eagerness to respond. Our colleagues at Hasadna in Israel have leveraged the campaign to begin conversations with theKnesset about releasing an API for parliamentary data. TheAl Hayat Center in Jordan had a personal appointment with the Speaker of the Jordanian parliament to hand deliver our community’s demands for openness. These early conversations mark a new opportunity for dialogue between PMOs and members of parliaments, and we expect to hear of many more examples in the coming weeks.

In addition to these governmental responses, we’re also seeing a big response from our broader PMO community. National level actors are customizing the campaign to leverage it in their own context, through activities including organizing a coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs) for a strong coordinated promotional push (Spain, Burkina Faso, Croatia), crowdsourcing unique translations based on the national parliamentary situations or cultural nuances (Latin America, Netherlands, Chile) and even hand delivering letters to parliaments when contact information is difficult to find (Kenya).

One development we’re particularly excited about is that our approach to legislative reform at scale internationally is also being translated to the subnational level. Sunlight is leading (and will soon be sending) a similar letter to every U.S. state legislature, and PATTIRO — an NGO based in Indonesia — has disseminated the letter nationwide, reaching out to the country’s 34 regional legislatures.OpenNorth, a PMO in Canada, and Public Policies Lab from Argentina have also sent the letter to local legislatures.

We expect that these stories of direct legislature impact and national CSO activity are just a few of the many to come. To track these initiatives, we’ve put together a public document to help build a repository of success stories for the global legislative transparency community. However, to create a complete and inclusive repository, we need your help. If you know of any updates or activities that have resulted from this campaign on the national level, please add it to our spreadsheet.

Publish the Constitution Annotated as Data

Dear Library of Congress and Government Printing Office,

For decades, you have jointly published a handy compendium that explains the U.S. Constitution as it has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. It took a couple of letters from the Senate (and repeated nudging from the public interest community—20092010,201120122013) to move you to publish the Constitution Annotatedonline more than once a decade, but you still do not regularly publish it online in a structured-data format. Instead, the Constitution Annotated is published as a PDF, which has not been updated in 15 months.

The entire point of the document is to educate the public and Congress about the Constitution. As a technical matter, the Constitution Annotated is prepared as an XML file, published internally to congressional staff as a series of web pages, and updated regularly. You could simply make those pages available to the public and we would all be happy. Instead, the public interest community must keep pestering you, year after year.

Why do we care? Publishing the Constitution Annotated in a structured-data format means that the public can easily reuse the information so that more people can benefit from the knowledge it contains. Structured data makes it easier to embed the information in Wikipedia, or create betterwebsites on the Constitution, and so on. It also means we can do neat things with the contents, such as automatically classifying Supreme Court cases by topic simply by drawing upon the document’s structure.

Publishing the Constitution Annotated in structured-data format is also within your mission. As the respective repository and publisher of government-generated information, providing public access to an authoritative explanation of our nation’s founding document, as interpreted over the years, is the kind of thing you do.

So I ask you, on Constitution Day 2014, let’s get this fixed before next year. We’re happy to help.

Vote for us at SXSW

The Congressional Data Coalition is proud to be sponsoring a panel proposal at SXSW Interactive next year in Austin, TX. The PanelPicker voting process is open now until September 6th at midnight. Your vote will help us get our ideas out at Austin’s annual gathering of 30,000 technologists, activists, and entrepreneurs.

Speakers include: Molly Schwartz, R Street Institute; Rebecca Williams, Sunlight Foundation; Molly Bohmer, Cato Institute; and Daniel Schuman, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.

See the full panel description: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/35484

Half a trillion unaccounted for on federal spending transparency website

The federal government can’t find $619 billion dollars on the website it built six years ago to give a transparent account of its spending activities. USA Today‘s Gregory Korte has the full story:

A government website intended to make federal spending more transparent is missing at least $619 billion from 302 federal programs, a government audit has found. And the data that does exist is wildly inaccurate, according to the Government Accountability Office, which looked at 2012 spending data. Only 2% to 7% of spending data on USASpending.gov is “fully consistent with agencies’ records,” according to the report….OMB spokesman Jamal Brown said the administration is already working to improve the data.

The website is currently maintained by the Office of Management and Budget, and had an initial budget of $15 million.

Hat tip to AEI’s Arthur Brooks for the tweeting the story.

House Concludes Third Annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference

(Cross-posted from CREW)

Last week, the House of Representatives held its third annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. The full-day symposium, which took place in the U.S. Capitol, featured speakers from inside and outside government who discussed efforts to make more legislative information available to the public, particularly in machine-readable formats.

The event was sponsored by the Committee on House Administration and included staff from House leadership offices (of both parties), the Clerk’s office, the Government Printing Office, the Library of Congress, the Office of Law Revision Counsel, the Office of Legislative Counsel, and other personal and committee offices. In addition, a number of outside groups made presentations, including the Congressional Data Coalition, a consortium of civic organizations, civic hackers, businesses, trade associations, librarians, and others who support better public access to legislative data. The event was live-streamed, and video will be made available on the Committee on House Administration’s website.

While the event was jam-packed with interesting information, three items particularly stood out.

First, the conference itself is the ongoing manifestation of the House of Representatives’ collective efforts to make its activities more open and transparent to the public. For proof, one merely needs to look to the series of annual transparency conferences, the ongoing meetings of the Legislative Bulk Data Task Force, the recent Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, the creation of docs.house.gov, the ongoing upgrades to rules.house.gov, the updated version of the U.S. code, and so on.

Second, real progress is being made on one of the thorniest but singularly important issues: Is it possible to show, in real-time, how an amendment would change a bill and how draft legislation would change the law? For a number of technical reasons, building a solution to these questions is particularly difficult in the U.S. Congress. However, the House has made real progress in doing just that. For the details, watch the HOLC/OLRC Modernization and Next Steps presentation given by Ralph Seep, Sandra Strokoff, and Harlan Yu.

Finally, there is a growing sense of partnership and camaraderie among people who are working to make legislative information more widely available regardless of whether they are inside or outside government. Sometimes the work of people outside government is paving the way for innovations inside government. Other times, efforts by those inside government allow those of us on the outside to build clever new services and tools. In many respects, there is a real give-and-take. This is what progress looks like.

Transparency and Legislative Data Happy Hour

On behalf of the Congressional Data Coalition, you are invited to a Transparency and Legislative Data Happy Hour this upcoming Thursday, May 29, from 5ish to 7. We will get started right after the House of Representative’s 2014 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference ends.

Location: Bullfeathers, on Capitol Hill, just south of the Cannon House Office Building, 410 1st Street SE Washington, DC

We will provide (very) light hors d’eouvres and have a spot towards the back of the bar.

Please let us know you’re coming by RSVPing below (or go here).

Democracy and open data: are the two linked?

Are democracies better at practicing open government than less free societies? To find out, I analyzed the 70 countries profiled in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index and compared the rankings against the 2013 Global Democracy Rankings. As a tenet of open government in the digital age, open data practices serve as one indicator of an open government. Overall, there is a strong relationship between democracy and transparency.

Using data collected in October 2013, the top ten countries for openness include the usual bastion-of-democracy suspects: the United Kingdom, the United States, mainland Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

There are, however, some noteworthy exceptions. Germany ranks lower than Russia and China. All three rank well above Lithuania. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Nepal all beat out Belgium. The chart (below) shows the democracy ranking of these same countries from 2008-2013 and highlights the obvious inconsistencies in the correlation between democracy and open data for many countries.

transparency

There are many reasons for such inconsistencies. The implementation of open-government efforts – for instance, opening government data sets – often can be imperfect or even misguided. Drilling down to some of the data behind the Open Data Index scores reveals that even countries that score very well, such as the United States, have room for improvement. For example, the judicial branch generally does not publish data and houses most information behind a pay-wall. The status of legislation and amendments introduced by Congress also often are not available in machine-readable form.

As internationally recognized markers of political freedom and technological innovation, open government initiatives are appealing political tools for politicians looking to gain prominence in the global arena, regardless of whether or not they possess a real commitment to democratic principles. In 2012, Russia made a public push to cultivate open government and open data projects that was enthusiastically endorsed by American institutions. In a June 2012 blog post summarizing a Russian “Open Government Ecosystem” workshop at the World Bank, one World Bank consultant professed the opinion that open government innovations “are happening all over Russia, and are starting to have genuine support from the country’s top leaders.”

Given the Russian government’s penchant for corruption, cronyism, violations of press freedom and increasing restrictions on public access to information, the idea that it was ever committed to government accountability and transparency is dubious at best. This was confirmed by Russia’s May 2013 withdrawal of its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. As explained by John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation:

While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions of reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.

Which just goes to show that, while a democratic government does not guarantee open government practices, a government that regularly violates democratic principles may be an impossible environment for implementing open government.

A cursory analysis of the ever-evolving international open data landscape reveals three major takeaways:

  1. Good intentions for government transparency in democratic countries are not always effectively realized.
  2. Politicians will gladly pay lip-service to the idea of open government without backing up words with actions.
  3. The transparency we’ve established can go away quickly without vigilant oversight and enforcement.

Congress at a Glance

What is Congress doing this week? The answer to this question—an assortment of hearings and markups in the House and Senate—is surprisingly difficult to find. A few publications sell this information to congressional insiders with money to burn, but only recently has a comprehensive free source of this information become available.

The privately-run congressional website GovTrack just began publishing a committee meetings calendar for all hearings and markups scheduled in the House or Senate, updated daily. This calendar levels the playing field for small non-profits and private citizens otherwise not able to afford comprehensive scheduling information.

Both Senate and House rules require nearly all committees to publish committee scheduling information a week in advance (three days for some House meetings). For a while now, the Senate aggregated the scheduling information in one place both in human-readable and machine-readable formats, but the House buried information on multiple committee webpages, often in PDFs, except for a listing of the upcoming day’s events.

With the House’s launch of its impressive new website, docs.house.gov, users can obtain information about that chamber’s activities as soon as it is scheduled. In fact, docs.house.gov goes further than the Senate website and contains relevant committee documents such as witness testimony and legislation about to be considered on the House floor. The House Rules Committee also has vast amounts of data about amendments offered for consideration on the floor.

All this means that it is now possible to combine House and Senate data to get a fuller picture of what is happening in committees across the legislative branch. (A few entities, such as Senate Appropriators, don’t have to follow these publication rules.) One would expect Congress’ flagship legislative information website, Congress.gov, to combine this information into one helpful, public-facing list, but that is not yet the case.

Traditionally, civic activists have led on congressional technology issues, with their innovations slowly leaking over into official practice. One could imagine a central list of upcoming hearings and markups that contains links to live and archived video, committee documents, witness lists, and other useful information, all in one place.

Until then, GovTrack’s unified list of committee activities has transformed civic data published by Congress into something everyone can use.

Cross-posted from CREW.