I was honored this week to be invited to testify before the Senate Government Affairs Sub Committee hearing entitled, “Removing the Shroud of Secrecy: Making Government More Transparent and Accountable“. A first panel of government leaders including Vivek Kundra, Aneesh Chopra and US Archivist David Ferriero were invited to discuss progress on Open Government. A second panel of industry and advocacy experts including representatives from the Sunlight Foundation, the National Security Archive and Meritalk Online (and Adobe) were also invited, although our testimony was cut short by procedural maneuvers relevant to the health care debate occurring on the Senate Floor. For the two and half hours we were there, Senators Carper and Coburn participated fully. The hearing may be rescheduled to complete the witness testimony, but in the interim, two things were very clear to me: we have come a long way in recent years but the Open Government movement is still missing critical agents of change in government.
My how things have changed
I worked in the Senate from 1995-99 and got my first real introduction to the intersection of technology and government during the Microsoft anti-trust oversight hearing in March, 1998. That hearing was a major Washington spectacle including the CEOs of the major tech titans of the time. And my distinct memory was the anxiety that Senators and staff had about publicly discussing technology – which most Senators at the time didn’t use or particularly understand. The hearing itself questioned whether Microsoft violated anti-trust law by bundling its IE browser on the Windows desktop. And I remember explaining to my 96 year-old boss that the words ‘Browser’ and ‘Bundling’ were actually words despite the fact that his copy of Webster’s failed to corroborate my claim. And that the word ‘Desktop’ was actually a homonym and not a physical part of furniture. I have no doubt that the Senate staffers preparing for this week’s hearing had very different discussions with their Senators who were clearly knowledgeable and passionate on the promise that technology brings to government. This may seem like an obvious observation – of course this value is clear 12 years later. But while measuring the distance of how far we have come is positive and, perhaps, humorous, the distance we have to go is more daunting. Which leads to my second observation that we need to get Congress more involved in Open Government.
Vision meets the Law
The most interesting and frictional piece of the hearing came from Senator Coburn who wanted to know when Vivek and Aneesh planned to comply with the Federal Funding and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFTA) authored by Coburn and then-Senator Obama. Coburn applauded the Administration’s open government efforts, but questioned why so many initiatives had been undertaken by executive order when the one transparency law that was a fully codified law on the books had been ignored. He claimed we would be much further along if Vivek and Aneesh put their efforts towards fedspending.gov than towards the OGD and evangelism and “everything else.” He was referring specifically to OMB’s responsibility to publish a report to Congress on Federal sub-award and sub-contract spending. But generally he was referring to the very basic constitutional principal that the law of the land is established by Congress, not the Executive branch. And if we want to progress through openness and technology, we should focus on the Law because agencies and citizens have to follow it. It’s a remarkably simple commentary but one that doesn’t seem to have much energy in the Open Government movement. (Although I would love to know if I’m missing something). Most of the efforts have been about vision and possibility (marketing) or about data propagation (developer enablement). But I have not seen much in the way of true institutional incentive change – funding, organizational restructuring, program creation and requirements and economic incentives – the things that really do mean ‘change.’ Bills that become laws. Take a look at the Healthcare debate and ask yourself ‘when does change occur?’ It’s when Congress passes legislation. Now you may counter my comment with my own post – Sen. Coburn says himself the one transparency law – FFTA – is not enacting change. But he furthered that sentiment by inviting Vivek back every month to discuss the issue until he gets a suitable answer. A polite reminder of the inherent checks and balances in our system required to make change happen.
Congress is the most powerful branch of government in my opinion – but at least equally as powerful as the Executive branch- yet there is not the same level of energy coming from Capitol Hill equivalent to what is coming from the Administration. Which will make it hard for Open Government to progress at the rate we’d like to see it progress. I think this is something that needs to change, and I’m interested in your thoughts to who on Capitol Hill might feel that way as well.
You can read a transcript of my testimony here (pdf).