NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Practices to Improve Government Transparency

March 22, 2013

During his 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama promised more transparency in government. Many in the government transparency movement are still interested in keeping that promise alive, but the government is not creating an atmosphere or practicing policies that create open transparency, says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute.

  • The government's biggest problem in creating more transparency is making government data available about the deliberations, management and results of government.
  • The government currently offers less-than-acceptable authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability and machine-readability.
  • Improving data practices would allow the transparency community to consume information about the government and convert it into a variety of formats for the public.

The data that does exist is confusing to comprehend because each organizational unit of the federal government is not clearly labeled by a system of unique identifiers.

  • Despite this labeling issue, the changes that need to occur are institutional, not technical.
  • The Web site provides a large amount of data sets but most fail to expose the deliberations, management and results of the agencies.
  • The result is that the government confuses open government data with open government.

Having access to the raw data is useful but far from the definition of high value or from providing information on the actual functioning of government.

  • Authoritative sourcing would promptly produce the data as near to its origination as possible.
  • Availability practices would ensure consistency and confidence in data.
  • Machine-discoverability practices create data that is identified and referenced consistently so the organization and communication within documents and files is not variable.
  • Machine-readability practices would allow computers to automatically generate interpretations of government data.

The legislative process is the easiest place to create government transparency. Bills and legislation can easily be marked up with programing languages to make them searchable and easy to interpret. Assigning identifiers to each agency, issue, politician, bureaucrat and more would allow for a machine-readable organization chart.

The DATA Act already mandates that an organizational chart be created but so far the government has not made progress toward this goal.

Source: Jim Harper, "Addressing Transparency in the Federal Bureaucracy: Moving toward a More Open Government," Cato Institute, March 13, 2013.


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