There’s a fairly close allignment of interests and goals between the folks working for open access to scholarship and open data in science (one of the main themes of this blog), and the folks working for greater government transparency. As is the case with science and scholarship, access government data can enhance participation (of the civil society kind) and accountability. Our recent work relating to Recovery.gov (here, and here), attempted to bring some of the experience we had in “open data” (for science) to open data for government.
Initially, we were very optimistic. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidelines on Feb 18th that required individual agencies participating in the recovery effort to publish feeds that disclosed important information about their actions, spending, and who recieved money. The great thing about these guidelines was that the very agencies who spent recovery dollars would reveal exactly how they spent the money. There were many missing pieces and unanswered questions in these guidelines, and my colleagues Erik Wilde, Raymond Yee, and I tried to fill in these blanks with this report and demonstration implementation.
However, OMB just issued a new set of revised guidelines that represent a big step backwards from their initial call for decentralized disclosure [UPDATED WITH CLARIFICATION SEE BELOW]. The decentralized approach is now replaced by a centralized approach of having Recovery.gov publish all the data. All the information flows from the agencies, to OMB, to Recovery.gov will be opaque to the public. (Actually, according to the guidelines, much of this will take place via email).
This issue of centralization marks how our group diverges with other transparency advocates. For example, the transparency advocacy group OMB Watch explicitly called for a “Centralized Reporting System” (page 9 of this report). [UPDATED WITH CLARIFICATION SEE BELOW]. While in some ways convenient, centralization is not required, and in, our view, works against transparency. First off, feeds can be readily aggregated. With feeds, the disclosure reports of distributed agencies can be brought together for convenience and “one stop shopping” monitoring. Secondly, the call for a centralized reporting source means that all the data gathering and reporting processes happen behind the scenes in a manner that is not publicly visible. What’s happening in these back-end processes? How is the data being managed and processed? How is it transformed? You end up with “black-box transparency” which is obviously an oxymoron.
But this gets to the heart of the issue. Transparency advocacy groups need to be much more aware of the architecture issues behind “transparency”. Access to data is not enough. The processes behind how the data is gathered, processed, and published also matter.
There’s much more to say about this issue, but in the interim, please look at Erik Wilde’s detailed discussion about why architectures of transparency matter.
Update:Over at the “Open House” discussion list, Gary Bass made an important comment regarding OMB Watch’s position on “centralization”. He wrote:
For the record, and to clarify your blog post, at no time did OMB Watch ever support only sending information to OMB to build a single database. OMB Watch has always supported comprehensive machine readable feeds (APIs and syndications) from agencies. I also believe that is OMB’s intent based on our reading of the guidance.
His comment and statement on this matter is very welcome, and I stand corrected. I’m glad that this important organization is taking a thoughtful position on this matter.
UPDATE about OMB’s Guidelines. Regarding page 68 of the OMB revised guidelines. It still says feeds are required, then a few lines down the text says that if an agency is unable to publish a feed, it can do something else (with some instructions about how to do the alternative). Of a 172 page document, only 3 pages (68-70) discuss feeds and their implementation. This suggests that feeds are being dropped as a vehicle for disclosure.