Data and Democracy

In June 2008, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain collaborated on a groundbreaking bill to post the full text of all federal contracts with private agencies online for public review. Senate Bill 3077, the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008, died in committee and was stricken from the books when the 111th Congress met earlier this week. Meanwhile, just as S.B. 3077 was wiped from memory, a cascade of government-related financial fiascos began. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson declined appointment as Secretary of Commerce amid allegations that his administration improperly awarded a contract to a California consulting firm.

One way that technology can ensure that government money is wisely spent is by promoting transparency in the expenditure of government funds. Ensuring that taxpayers know where their money goes and why gives politicians impetus to spend it wisely. Obama’s first crack at using sunshine as a governmental disinfectant came with the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which established, an open-source online portal detailing the amounts and recipients of all federal awards. not only posts this information for easy review by taxpayers, but also posts it in a format that allows anyone to parse and display it using tools of their own device.

Perhaps in response to the Richardson debacle, our fair legislature plans to create a new site modeled on and incorporating aspects of the Obama-McCain transparency bill. will document the $775 billion economic stimulus package that it plans to present to Obama upon his inauguration, and hopefully will act as a vehicle for Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Representative Tim Waltz’s stimulus package amendment specifying that contracts and reports related to bailout spending must be posted online. and represent a monumental shift in ideology. For the first time, the federal government has acknowledged the potential of crowdsourcing to create tools that ensure accountable, transparent awarding of government moneys — and the necessity of such innovation and participation in maintaining our democracy.

The Bush administration’s decision to compulsively destroy all of its electronic records of official communications under the guise of executive privilege only highlights the differences between the outgoing and incoming administrations’ approach to data transparency. The President-elect is renowned for his promise to banish special interests to the wilderness. He’s acknowledged the need to use technology to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation, and to improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens. Now, for the American public to regain confidence in its public institutions, Obama’s government–and government at all levels–must put its mouth where its money is.