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Silicon Sunshine - Data Transparency In Government

Should we have transparency in government? By "transparency" I mean that if the government has information (ranging from the voting records of legislators, to the detailed budgets for every branch of government, to the daily calendars of legislators), then the government is obligated to present this information online for all of us to look at. After all, they're our employees, aren't they? Shouldn't we be able to see everything that they are doing?

Lawrence Lessig, a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school's Center for Internet and Society, wrote an interesting article on this subject in The New Republic. Lessig begins by recognizing that there is certainly value in some level of transparency:

Without a doubt, the vast majority of these transparency projects make sense. In particular, management transparency, which is designed to make the performance of government agencies more measurable, will radically improve how government works. And making government data available for others to build upon has historically produced enormous value--from weather data, which produces more than $800 billion in economic value to the United States, to GPS data, liberated originally by Ronald Reagan, which now allows cell phones to instantly report (among other essential facts) whether Peets or Starbucks is closer...

What could possibly be wrong with such civic omniscience? How could any democracy live without it? Finally America can really know just who squeezed the sausage and when, and hold accountable anyone with an improper touch. Imagine how much Brandeis, the lover of sunlight, would have loved a server rack crunching terabytes of data. As a political disinfectant, silicon beats sunlight hands down.


(Lawrence Lessig)

However, Lessig has concerns:

To know whether a particular transparency rule works, then, we need to trace just how the information will enter these "complex chains of comprehension." We need to see what comparisons the data will enable, and whether those comparisons reveal something real. And it is this that the naked transparency movement has not done. For there are overwhelming reasons why the data about influence that this movement would produce will not enable comparisons that are meaningful. This is not to say the data will not have an effect. It will. But the effect, I fear, is not one that anybody in the "naked transparency movement," or any other thoughtful citizen, would want.

Lessig believes that we simply don't have the time or the trustworthy tools to follow the minutia of a complex process like how a bill was discussed and became law. Which legislators took money from the beneficiaries of the law (probably all of them)? Which legislators met with lobbyists (probably all of them)? Which legislators had staff members with ties to lobbyists or companies with a stake in the legislation (many of them)? The claims and counter-claims by all of the participants will be too difficult to follow.

So, in the case of legislation before Congress, Lessig really believes that the problem is not really about "transparency":

The objective should be trustworthiness. The problem that these bills address is that we have a Congress that nobody trusts--a Congress that, in the opinion of the vast majority of the American people, sells its results to the highest bidder. The aim of these proposals should be to change that perception by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results. In this way we can eliminate the possibility of influence that nourishes the cynicism that is anyway inevitable when technology makes it so simple to imply an endless list of influence.

Lessig suggests that if we have elections that are federally supported, that would remove the influence of money (along with the existing laws on bribery), and that this would create more trust. Personally, I think that more transparency would encourage more trust; however, I'm sympathetic to the problems that too much information while a bill is being passed would cause.

I think that we could avoid a lot of the problems that Lessig is talking about by arranging for “delayed transparency”, which I’ll define as “after a bill is passed, every detail is on the table”. This would let us see what corporations contributed money to whom, what legislators met with which lobbyists, etc.

By “everything” on the table, I mean relevant matters only. I don’t care what politicians do in their private lives. All that data is private and off-topic. In essence, this would give voters the opportunity to review the performance of their elected officials at regular intervals (i.e., elections) and give them the opportunity to do their jobs without being picked on for every last moment of every day.

Every legislator will, of course, know that all of the relevant details will emerge. They will make their decisions knowing that we (the people, as we say in the US) will see everything once the bill is passed (or not) and will pass judgement on their performance in full possession of the facts. I’m hoping that this knowledge would affect their decision-making.

It just so happens that a great novel about "silicon sunshine" - the power of computers to retrieve relevant details from vast seas of data - was written about thirty years ago. In his 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner wrote about government data transparency that was enforced by a tapeworm written by the novel's main character. The tapeworm ran on the datanet that was used by everyone, including the government and corporations; it forced hidden information to be printed out in relevant contexts. Brunner gleefully relates what the result of this much silicon sunshine would be. Let's suppose you were reading a notice regarding back taxes:

AN ALARMING ITEM TO FIND ON
YOUR OVERDUE-TAX DEMAND

For the information of the person required to pay this tax:
Analysis of last year's federal budget shows that:
***17% of your tax dollar went on boondoggles
***13% on propaganda, bribes and kickbacks
***11% on federal contracts with companies which are a) fronting for criminal activities and/or b) partly or wholly owned by persons subject to indictment for federal offences and/or c) hazardous to health and the environment. Fuller details may be obtained by punching the code number at top left of this form into any veephone. They take about 57 minutes to present.
(Read more about Brunner's ideas on government data transparency)

Now, that's sunshine.

Read Lessig's argument in Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government via Futurismic.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/15/2009)

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