Understanding How Transparency Works For The US Government

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.

Meag: The Open Gov Foundation is a small non-profit here in D.C. They started out as an organisation building technical platforms. We aim to really understand the technical capacity needs of a place like Congress.
As part of this I’ve spent the past five months in the field exploring how we might improve the constituent communication process. You often hear petitions in the US to call your congressman or senator and urge them to vote yes or no on a particular bill. But what’s the impact of that and what actually happens to that piece of information? Does it even get to the congressperson or do they just disappear into a black hole?

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

Meag: That experience gave me a chance to reflect on the way we need to interact with government, and how we have to understand their pain points. A lot of the time we tend to point fingers and yell from the mountains that the government is doing a bad job and they’re not giving us the information that we need, and that they need to be more open. But in this project we decided to turn that on its heads to say “well let’s go inside to find out why this isn’t working”.

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.

Meag: One thing I wished we could have done more of, given more time and resources, was to have had more interactions with non-tech savvy groups of people — there are still some members of Congress who don’t use email and they read everything by hand. Congress has 435 different offices, so it’s hard to cover them all.

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.

Meag: We were really trying to understand and look at what staffers are going through. These are junior people — interns — who are at the front line of the office answering phone calls and dealing with constituents. We looked at the current process and whether they thought that it was a problem, or if they knew that there were better ways of entering data or logging phone calls. There’s some insane instances — like an intern writing a constituents concerns on a post-it note and then going back to an Excel spreadsheet, typing in that concern, and then staff are going to then transcribe that spreadsheet into a database… and then nothing.

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.

Meag: Just in the past decade, there’s been a lot of legislation and a lot of interest around open government data. We’ve made a lot of progress. But as we move into the present day there’s a lot of work to be done on codifying things and making open data the default. We are working backwards, trying to open up the most closed data. So [it’s a] sliding scale between open and closed.
The open data I’ve tried to access in the past has been accessible but I wouldn’t say it’s been understandable. There’s a lot more to be done. For example, fully downloadable datasets available for a lot of stuff. But the DATA Act has been really helpful here, Data.gov did great work … I’m hopeful for the future.

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

Meag: Yeah, the challenges, I’ll speak to you as a practitioner. The big picture from my perspective is we have a lot of things in place. I mean of course with the new administration, there have been a lot of attacks on information and expression. We’ve seen shortly after the inauguration, there were open data sets that were taken down from certain agencies such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). There has been a threat to many parts of our lives, but for open data specifically, from the transparency and accountability lens, I think we are doing a good job at making sure that those efforts continue. And again, back to the passing of these data laws that are happening or in progress. I know they’ll become law soon. Open Data is still a big part of the administration and it’s a bipartisan issue, we’ve seen this over the years. Open data, transparency and accountability are important among our constituents regardless of political leanings because having equal access is beneficial for everyone.

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.

Meag: I’m constantly reminding myself to always keep the end in mind. Also knowing that in the open source world, anyone can help. And so I’m constantly trying to ensure that I’m building and documenting in a way that allows for collaboration. A couple of weeks ago, we had a whole session on what a successful open data project looks like. And a lot of the ideas that came out of it were exactly that: building in such a way that is inclusive and encourages participation.

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.

Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media is an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal.

Cover image by skp, story edited by James Marchant and Yan Naung Oak.