How Transparency Fails and Works, too

Disclosure, proponents say, along with the miracle of the web will allow for ordinary Jane and Joe Watchdogs to scour public data and flush out corruption in Washington, DC. “If we could just get members of Congress to list their financial holdings,” they say, “we could show the public that they’re benefiting financially from the decisions they make as legislators.” And to an extent, they’re right. I’d bet that it’s an easy case to be made that members of Congress benefit financially from being members of Congress in non-salaried ways. I’d also bet that most of the public has come to expect it.

Look— I’m a fan of transparency. I’m a supporter of transparency efforts, donor to them, and have worked long hours to shed light on how Washington works. I’ve just finished two years service to transparency efforts as director of Sunlight Labs, and will continue supporting the field. But its time the people in the transparency community were transparent with themselves and figured out what works and what doesn’t. Let’s take a look at the data.

Presently, lobbyists have to disclose some stuff but not all of it. Stuff like who they’re lobbying for, and for what issues. And a vague idea of when they were lobbying, along with some other important stuff. If you want to know the details, read the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Here’s a good look at a quarterly lobbying report for Adobe. Much to the chagrin of transparency advocates (of which I am one), which member of Congress or aide the lobbyist met with, and when exactly along with a bunch of other stuff isn’t reported. If we could get that data then the public could see that lobbyists talk to Members of Congress about bills and persuade them — through white papers, campaign contributions and bundling — to vote a particular way, especially when it is time for them to vote.

If you take an honest look at the record, it’s fairly rare that this transparency alone makes any difference at all. Here’s what I mean: In 1995 the Lobbying Disclosure Act was passed (and amended in 1998). Take a look at the total number of lobbyists and total lobbying spending since then. One can presume that if spending money on lobbying wasn’t effective, then it wouldn’t have more than tripled since the act was passed.

Take a look at the campaign contributions lobbyists have made to members of Congress since 1990. Pay close attention to the off-year elections. That’s when members don’t have a presidential candidate to compete with for money. We’re talking greater than 50% increases in every mid-term election. That’s some growth! I can’t imagine that after 20 years of 50% growth every 4 years, this is just a case of lobbyists worshipping sunk costs. They’ve got to be getting something for it to keep investing like that.*. All the transparency in the world, seemingly, isn’t changing the fact that lobbyists have incredible access to our representatives.

Transparency Does Not Kill Apathy

Despite controversy and disclosure, Blackwater, now Xe Services LLC had a record year in 2009. According to ContractorMisconduct.org the federal contractor with the most incidents of misconduct? No, not Halliburton, not Blackwater. It’s BP P.L.C.. BP misconduct has been catalogued from government datasets and disclosed by organizations like the Project on Government Oversight for over a decade. There was no mass public outrage over the 15 people that died as a result of BP’s negligence in 2007. Very few cared, and — despite this disclosure and availability of data to the public — thanks to the public’s negligence and apathy we’ve now got a different kind of black water on our hands.

Transparency is Good Supporting Evidence

While it’s rare, the evidence needed to convict folks like Jack Abramoff is held, inside public records. See the original Washington Post Article about Abramoff, that kicked off the probes that led to his conviction. Here’s a version I made of the first page of the story that has the public datasets in the article highlighted. It’s been through disclosure that professional journalists have been able to win Pulitzers through ousting some of the more audacious characters from our governments. That’s important.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking though that just because a system has real-time, online disclosure that somehow the system will be cleaned up. It won’t. Data makes watchdogging possible, sure, but more data makes watchdogging harder. Plus, for the transparency solution to work, people have to actually care enough to watchdog.

Imagine that your city council, facing terrible obesity rates, decided to enact and enforce a mandatory nudity law to improve its public health. Policy wonks got together and decided that in order to get people to lose weight, they’d outlaw clothing. People went outside naked, and sure, it was a little uncomfortable at first, but basically— the fat people stayed fat, and the thin people stayed thin. The town was more comfortable just averting their collective eyes.

There is no “Citizen Inspector General”

The promise of “Joe and Jane Watchdog, Citizen Inspectors General” simply doesn’t exist. The Abramoff story, for instance, tipped because the tribes increased their fees by 10-20 times according to the Post, and while I haven’t asked the writer behind it Susan Schmidt, it seems like they were tipped off because local tribe members began to complain about wasteful spending by tribe leadership. It was not the case that a reporter got a story from a database. It was definitively un-Average-Joe John McCain, not the average Joe who finished the job, too. He was looking for a way to distinguish himself from his languishing Republican colleagues, found himself chairman of the Indian Affairs committee and launched a probe. Mr. and Mrs. Watchdog were nowhere to be found.

Whistleblowing > Transparency

The point isn’t transparency. Transparency is never the point. It’s a means. We want transparency for something— to slow corruption, to increase communications, to build public trust, or to create economic growth. I could stand for less of a focus on greater government transparency, and better automated whistleblowing.

For fighting corruption, The priority of transparency should not be the automation and processing of more data, but the automation of whistleblowing. We need a PageRank for corruption. Let the data replace that whistleblower and automatically tell reporters when something is up. Generate a list of organizations that have increased their lobbying expenditures by over 100% in a cycle, and email that list of hot tips to investigative reports. Unless that transparency is taken a step forward, and systems are built to actually root out corruption automatically, all this work is for naught. Transparency alone just doesn’t work.

Transparency Isn’t The Only Solution

I hope this article will stop letting government assure you that a system will be clean because it is transparent. With Lobbying for instance, I think you could democratize the lobbying system and make government more accountable to citizens. Right now, it’s impractical for Ms. Citizen to hire a lobbyist. But if all those folks in 2004 who gave money to MoveOn to end the war in Iraq spent that money on lobbyists instead, perhaps we’d have been out by now.

The big players in Washington know this. They’re seemingly unconcerned with which party is in power. Their money and lobbyists flow with whatever the public decides on election day. The public, on the other hand, seems obsessed with donating to non-incumbents, throwing out Congress, only to be disappointed that ThisNewCongress has been co-opted by lobbyists just like the last round was. Wouldn’t a better option be for the public to co-opt the lobbyists? It’s certainly less hair-brained than continuing to elect new members of Congress who do the same things as old members of Congress. A smart political entrepreneur could make a fortune building an ActBlue for lobbyists— allowing ordinary citizens to pool their money together and hire reputable lobbyists, and rate those lobbyists on their performance.

Ask anybody familiar with government procurement and contracting and they’ll tell you how insufficient usaspending.gov is. If you’re a web developer who wants to get outraged, check out how much recovery.gov costs. Those in the know say its because of “federal procurement” that it’s the case. Federal procurement was created to ensure that government purchases were fair and aboveboard, and to eliminate waste. But it’s turned out that it simply helps entrenchment and limits competition. The answer to smarter, cheaper, less wasteful recovery.govs isn’t more transparency, it’s procurement reform to allow for more competition and to allow for startups to easily market to government.

Blue State Digital, a company I co-founded, probably had a closer relationship with the president than Lockheed Martin on inauguration day, having built his website, been Sr. Staff on his campaign, and having several members of former staff become appointees in the administration. Yet they chose (I suspect— I have no inside info here) not to go into government contracting because it was too much of a hassle.

It’s the case that democratization of systems is a worthwhile experiment, and we ought to consider it as worthy of a cause as transparency itself. Ultimately, it’s time for the accountability wing of the Gov2.0 party to start rigorously testing itself for what works. Too much time, money and public attention is spent on stuff that ultimately does not. And that’s the point right? Who cares about transparency if it doesn’t actually reduce corruption, increase collaboration and participation, or eliminate waste.

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