Anyway. If we're going to get back to this Open Senate thing, I thought
it would be good to first have a discussion about the good and bad of
the Open House Project and see what we might do differently for Open
Senate. It'd be great if you have some thoughts if you'd post them here.
One of the ways I think OHP and OSP are important is that they document
the current state of affairs. We got a pretty good snapshot in time of
the leading technological and transparency issues before the House. It
puts us on a good footing to argue for change when we document, in a
professional way, what the state of affairs is, and, at least for me, it
helped to bring out the bigger picture that Congress is complicated and
sweeping transparency goals easily fall of the radar of those who are in
a position to make change.
But I think a short-coming of OHP was that it was too much big picture
and not enough supporting evidence. I have the Congressional Committees
chapter in mind. The recommendations were:
"explain their functions, link to relevant resources on THOMAS, publicly
post all relevant documents and information, including:recorded votes
(as per H. RES. 231) using XML, testimony and transcripts, hearing and
meeting schedules, on individual committee sites and on a centralized
site, using RSS feeds for schedules and for notification of other offerings"
The question on my mind is this: How different is reality from those
goals? How often do committees actually post results of recorded votes
(I'm talking numbers- 50% of the time?) and how difficult is it to
access (is it on the web? is it 508 accessible? is it somewhere citizens
will know where to look)?
We raised some questions, but we failed to show that Congress isn't
doing what it should be doing. We outlined goals but didn't actually
show that Congress hasn't already met them.
We would have a much stronger report, I feel, if we could go another
extra mile to do more research along these lines.
Some other questions that would have been interesting to answer and are
still relevant for OSP are:
The congressional record has deviated substantially in the past from
providing an account of what Congress actually did. Were those isolated
incidents or does this practice occur (perhaps less dramatically) often?
What is the point to congressional video? Can we show that if the public
had access to the video feed that they would be able to do something
useful with it? (Maybe the American News Project would have something to
say about it.) Is there demand?
Can we do some muckraking to figure out what the deal is with CRS
reports being sold? I feel like some law must be being broken if someone
is getting special access to government records.
Of course, to answer these questions someone needs to do some leg work.
But I always think it's best to raise the issue and worry about how to
get it done later.
Agree/disagree? Other ideas?
- Josh Tauberer
"Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation! Yields
falsehood when preceded by its quotation!" Achilles to
Tortoise (in "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter)
Josh, I will respond to just one set of questions you raised:
What is the point to congressional video? Can we show that if the public had access to the video feed that they would be able to do something useful with it? (Maybe the American News Project would have something to say about it.) Is there demand?
I have written quite a bit about this question over the years; for example, see my 1996 paper, New Media, Potential Information & Democratic Accountability: A Case Study of Government Access Community Media, which won a Goldsmith Research Award from Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The key point is that the mechanisms of democratic accountability are often highly indirect and subtle. The norms for measuring the effectiveness of commercial media are completely inappropriate for measuring the impact of public records media.
> The flowering of internet technology allows the streaming and recording of
> any event, from bill markup in sub-committee to presidential signing
> statement. Each step of the way in the legislative process is just as
> important as the next. We should first record, then position the media to
> be accessible to the general public on the web.
As a child of the Nixon era, I'm skeptical of this version of
transparency, because it seems to me to be based on a syllogism we've
already seen fail once (and quite spectacularly), namely:
1. Make Congress more transparent.
3. Public benefit!
The laws opening up the workings of Congress in the aftermath of
Watergate, and esp the 1976 'Sunshine Act' ("...every portion of every
meeting of an agency shall be open to public observation" -- 5 U.S.C.
552b(b)) were discussed in much the same way as recent transparency
Despite the rhetoric of public good, though, one of the principal
effects of said sunshine was to turbo-charge the lobbying industry.
Prior to 1976, hiring a lobbyist was akin to hiring a shaman: you gave
them some money, they waved some chicken bones over the appropriate
Congresspeople, a closed-door deliberation happened, and sometimes it
went your way, sometimes it didn't. No one really knew how to evaluate
value for money in lobbyists, because the key step between the fee and
the service -- the actual behavior of Congresspeople -- was hidden.
And then, in 1976, it wasn't hidden anymore. No Senator could tell the
Association of Seal-club Salesmen "Fellas, I think you've gotten a raw
deal and I'll push hard to remove regulations on clubbing seals" and
then head into a secret session and privately vote against them. Every
lobbyist then knew, and still knows, how ever member votes on
everything, and bingo -- the gears between fee and service suddenly
mesh very tightly. Hello, K Street.
Now I like the internet as much as the next guy, but transparency by
itself is an input, not an output. The output of Government is
bargains between interest groups. ('Special interest groups' is
redundant, as there are no 'national interest groups' for anything
other than national defense; its also a phrase, like Yuppie, that is
only used to describe others, never the speaker.) Some interest
groups, however, are better organized than others -- historically,
these are the interest groups that donate and have a well-managed
staff inside the Beltway.
And here's the thing: creators of transparency are arms dealers --
they sell to everybody. If transparency lets all interest groups make
use of improved information, then we would expect that the better
organized interests to make better use of any new transparency. This
is not to say that transparency is never good; it _is_ to say that it
isn't _always_ good, and that the negative effects result from
imbalances in the will to collective action, not just access to
Without a middle step that helps large, disorganized groups take
advantage of the newly transparent information, transparency may in
fact further increase the net asymmetry betwee 'interest group with
lobbyists' vs. 'interest groups without lobbyists' in getting the
Government to craft the needed bargains their way.
One lead, the Minnesota House - http://house.mn - does an particularly
good job with deep online video access. Of course we also have
over-the-air legislative coverage - no stuck only on cable BS we
accept nationally ... if you really want to reach more people down the
road, liberate video to the extent that it can also be broadcast in
digital television side SD sub-channels in addition to CSPAN and
require in law that X days of proceding to be available on cable Video
on Demand systems.
But we need to continue to acknowledge the media ecosystem as it's evolving.
Most people listen to and trust CNN, Fox, ABC, NPR, etc.
Then there is the growing influence of bloggers who are influencing
those big media outlets...if not having a direct appeal to citizens.
I believe that this government transparency is specifically helpful
for the bloggers.
Think of http://fivethirtyeight.com/ and the great way he dealt with
These bloggers can help parse the info and make sense of it for the
traditional journalists who still have so much influence but not as
much time/knowledge to dig deep.
But if the information is in a standard format that can be imported
into databases....then it'll be easy for developers etc to parse.
Clay is, in part, raising the question of that the citizen's want
actually is (vs. what we'd like it to be) and how much energy she'll
put behind that want.
Possible user stories:
1. As a voter wondering whether to respond to Politician X's
fundraising appeal, I want a summary of his track record on Issue Y so
that I can decide quickly whether to send him $25.
1) A discussion ensued over the point of transparency.
This came out of my statement that we should indicate that the public
will do something useful with more information if only Congress would
Jim referred us to his New Media, Potential Information & Democratic
DemocraticAccountability.pdf>. "It's complicated" is the bottom line?
David says: "We should first record, then position the media to
be accessible to the general public on the web."
Clay says we should make sure our recommendations help "large,
disorganized groups" rather than the interest groups that already have
more access than they might deserve.
Martin notes we have to motivate the public besides just giving them
Greg said the Internet helps solve issues of scaling and engagement.
That's why the tech is important to transparency.
2) I raised the question of how we might write the OSP report in a
better, more convincing way-
I suggested that a short-coming of OHP was that it was too much big
picture and not enough supporting evidence, and that we should include ,
for instance, some numbers about how many committees publish what types
of information (stay tuned for more on that, btw).
From Clay's point, we should make sure and frame transparency in terms
of balancing information access, not merely increasing information
overall which might have an adverse effect on the little guy.
chrisber suggested using user stories to show how information can be
used, usefully, by real people as Nisha put it- for a voter, issue
voter, policy analyst, investigative reporter, and mash-up programmer.
But, do we use what I'll call "use cases" (the type A, terse stories
that give concrete goals) or "user stories" (the warm and cuddly kind)?
Silona gave example use cases.
Greg suggested me as a user story. :) Thanks Greg. Greg says the best
user stories are not about individual constituents (to paraphrase) but
about how we as entrepreneurs (my wording again) are creating projects
that involve *many* constituents, sweeping many people at once into the
3) Committee video, etc.
David says record video first, ask questions about usefulness later.
Soren noted that committee information is skewed toward hearings, and
not markup sessions where the legislating actually occurs.
Steven noted that some states are doing a good job of broadcasting video.
And as I wrote above, let's get some numbers about how many committees
publish what types of information (stay tuned for more on that, btw).
4) Other things
I raised two other questions as examples of some other point (which I'm
noting here for future reference so I don't lose track).