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.

Congressional Data Coalition asks Senate to publish legislative info in digital formats

Earlier today, the Congressional Data Coalition submitted testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee on improving public access to legislative information. The coalition made two requests.

First, we asked the Senate to concur with legislative language passed by the House of Representatives and direct the secretary of the Senate to work to implement bulk access to bill status information. Second, we requested that the Senate authorize the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office to publish bill summary information in bulk in the same fashion as does the House of Representatives.

The Congressional Data Coalition previously had submitted testimony to House appropriators requesting bulk access to bill status information. While this recommendation was not adopted in subcommittee, an amendment to this effect offered by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., was adopted by the full committee in early April and passed by the House of Representatives yesterday.

The House of Representatives has led in making legislative information available to the public in digital formats. We hope the Senate will engage in efforts to ensure the public has access to congressional activities in a manner befitting our modern technological age.

The letter was jointly co-authored by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Civic Impulse, LLC, on behalf of the Congressional Data Coalition. It was signed by the Data Transparency Coalition, Legisworks.org, the National Priorities Project, the OpenGov Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, the R Street Institute, the Sunlight Foundation, WashingtonWatch.com, Jerry Hall of eCitizens.org and GovAlert.me, Molly Schwartz of the R Street Institute and Gregory Slater.