Understanding How Transparency Works For The US Government

Hazwany Jamaluddin
Feb 22, 2018 · 8 min read

The State of Transparency in the United States

In May 2013, President Barack Obama announced to the world that his administration had issued an ambitious new Open Data Policy. This new policy was unveiled within a broader executive order that mandated reforms to ensure increased levels of data transparency and public accountability on the part of the government.

Project Open Data was set up to support the implementation of this new policy in the same month. This wasn’t the first time that the Obama administration had made a drive to support open data initiatives — way back in May 2009, the first US government data website data.gov was launched by the first Chief Information Officer of the US, Vivek Kundra. Also, in 2011 Obama made a statement committing the U.S. to support Open Government principles and the Open Government Partnership. These commitments were undertaken with the intention of transforming the way the government serves and engages with American citizens in the twenty-first century.

Under the Obama administration, a lot of progress was made towards opening up government datasets to greater public scrutiny. But since then, the American political landscape has been transformed completely. Fears of a mass roll-back of Obama-era data policy have thankfully not yet been realised — the Sunlight Foundation reports that only one dataset on animal welfare was removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website during 2017. But it did note that several websites had been altered, and resources removed to align with the new government’s policies, including resources related to publicly funded science and climate change.

According to the Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer, US adherence to globally recognised open data guidelines is still lacking in many areas. In the latest Open Knowledge International’s Global Open Data Index on US openness, ten out of fifteen publicly available datasets are not in optimal open data formats. Although the US lands at #11 for openness overall, it remains the case that only 33% of US datasets are considered open. Amidst a reported surge in public perceptions of corruption, it is a crucial time for the government to fully commit to transparency and accountability in its data practices.

The chart shows the degree of corruption of nine influential groups; the national government, public officials and influential individuals i.e. religious leaders, business executives. The survey, US Corruption Barometer 2017 was conducted by Transparency International. Original link: https://infogram.com/usa-gcb-2017-institutions-1hxj48v3jqyq2vg

So, given this current context, what is civil society in the U.S doing to hold institutions accountable and to make sure the U.S government does not stray from the path of becoming more open and transparent in its operations? In this post, we talk to Meaghan Doherty, a technologist and researcher who is working on the front lines to tackle a crucial but overlooked aspect of holding institutions accountable: how does the public effectively communicate with their elected representatives?

Communicating with the government is never easy and the road is always bumpy, and most of the time there are plenty of bureaucratic roadblocks. From a citizen’s point of view, it is a huge challenge to have our voices heard, and an even bigger challenge to make sure there are follow up actions. It is often easy to blame the government for being inefficient and inept, but we rarely try to understand how we can pragmatically improve the situation. This is something that the The OpenGov Foundation (OGF) took on in their latest project. The report looks at using a human-centred approach to investigate the systems, tools, constraints, and human drivers that fuel congressional constituent correspondence processes. Their approach was framed around three guiding questions:

  1. How do congressional teams manage the process and operations of constituent engagement?
  2. How does constituent input shape actions and decisions?
  3. What capacity do congressional teams have for change?

We first learned about this project when last December, when we got in touch with data practitioner Meag to have a chat about the state of transparency in her country, the United States. She is a Senior UX Designer and Researcher at Agency CHIEF in Washington, DC. She is also a civic user researcher, designer, developer, and data wrangler. She has worked in open data for seven years. Meag’s work with the OGF focused on applying User-Centred Design to identify the difficulties faced by both the public and congressional staff when constituents communicate with their elected representatives in the US Congress. The project, From Voicemails to Votes, is a holistic look at the systems, tools, and constraints involved in the process, centred around its human drivers.

Starting out from questions like that, Meag and The OGF team dug deep into what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Throughout the project, Meag and her team have tried to be geographically and demographically diverse. They have met, Republicans Democrats, and selected members of Congress.

They interviewed congressional staff to find out in detail what the process of communicating with Congress looked like, and these interviews revealed some interestingly convoluted mechanisms.

The more we explore issues around open data in closed societies, and the more we talk to people working in the field, the more we realise that opening up data is just one of the steps involved in using technology as a tool for increased transparency and accountability. Simply making data available does not often translate automatically to increased accountability on the part of governments and other institutions. That is why the research that Meag does is so important. We need more deep dives examining the systems that, on paper at least, are supposed to be mechanisms that ensure accountability. Open data can only deliver on its promises when it’s a part of a broader scope of work where different people with different skill sets look for innovative ways to make sure data is not only openly available but is used effectively.

For Meag, open data is “open, public, electronic and necessary” — quoting the U.S government’s recent legislative Open Government Data Act passed by the House of Representatives on 15th November last year.

She believes as a researcher in the usability and transportability of information. And Meag confirms that the U.S has made a lot of progress when it comes to open government data.

This optimistic picture is of course countered by recent political developments in the US.

Participation, inclusion, and making things work for everyone, is something that Meag always comes back to across all the different projects that she has worked on.

If you want to know more about the project that Meag was a part of, called From Voicemails to Votes, it can be found here. The project also featured in an article on Wired.

You can also read more about Meag’s work with the advocacy community to build a data literacy application so that all activists have the toolkit to use and take action on data here.

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