MAGIC Session 4 part 2
Articles,  Blog

MAGIC Session 4 part 2


James Hamilton: Excellent. Danielle Danielle Brian: Ah, I one of the things that
I thought was interesting about the question that was asked for the panel was to think
about the N non-profit or NGO community has already done and my colleague Brian, he and
I have been putting together some thoughts and we thought you know actually there are
different models that the NGO world has accomplished. One is gathering and publishing government
documents. So, the CRS reports which ridiculously still aren’t made available through Open
CRS, or Federation of American Scientists are putting those online. Unifying and preserving
disparate government data like Taxpayers for Common Sense work. And as Bill was talking
about some of the work on subsidies as well on earmarks where we wouldn’t have to, the
rest of us don’t have to go through and find all of these little pieces of information
everywhere. Scavenging for government-related information,
using sources outside of the government, which is something for example Center for Responsible
Politics does on their revolving door data as well as what POGO, my organization, does
in our Federal Contractor Misconduct database, which is really incredible that the government
doesn’t actually have a database that tracks its contractors’ misconduct yet, although
we can talk about that because it is about to this month come online. And then finally auditing and cleaning up
the integrity of government data. And so those are sort of different pots of types of work
that our world has done. But as we were thinking about it, it struck us that there are some,
there are two big pitfalls as we move forward assuming that this is the way things should
be done. The first is that for the most part there
is a reliance on the concept of data and some of the most important work I think in holding
the government accountable doesn’t involve data, it involves information other than data.
Reports, ah memos, emails and so I just want to highlight that as we continue to go down
the road of technology as our friend, there are some things that just require us remembering
that some of the most important information is not going to be found in a dataset. But the more exciting part of the conversation
to me is then the question of why, why are the groups doing this work. Why is the government
not doing this work and um and I think there is a real problem in relying on the rest of
us to have to do what the government should be doing. For example, the work that we do
on the Federal Contract Misconduct database, we can’t possibly know all of the instances
that are out there. The government does and so it’s inefficient and it’s incomplete
to rely on the NGO community to be gathering this information. And so we think it’s important
for the government to embrace its role and responsibility in the way that Rick was just
talking about in helping to make sure the public has faith in what the government is
doing, the government presenting it for the public to see. But that’s where I think we have this huge
disconnect. As I am exploring and working on the Open Government Directive and the concept
of transparency in the Obama Administration it’s becoming more and more clear to me
that there are two different concepts of what we mean by open government. And I think many
of those, many of us, maybe all of us in this room think of open government for the purposes
of accountability. And that is not the kind of information that we are going to see entrepreneurs
and outside organizations that are creating apps being interested in. And that’s the
data that I think is incredibly important in making sure that we have that trust in
government that Rick was talking about. And so in addition to it being inefficient,
relying on the outside sector groups like us, I think that some of the most important
information is going to be lost unless we can, unless the government can embrace the
purposes behind why we have open government. So when you look at the language of the open
government directive as it was written, it embraced the concept of accountability. Let’s
see if I can find the specific language. “The reason we are doing this is to increase accountability,
promote informed participation by the public and create economic opportunity. Each agency
shall take prompt steps to extend access to information by making it available online
in open formats.” But there was a fascinating article written
by Beth Noveck who had been until I think earlier this year maybe, last year working
in the White House on the Open Government Directive where she is really articulating
there is this divide. That the people who have been working on the Open Government Directive
weren’t thinking about that accountability data really at all. She actually is pretty
explicit about it. She says, “In retrospect open government was a bad choice. It’s generated
too much confusion. Many people even in the White House still assume that open government
means transparency about government.” When I read that it was like wow. She actually
said it. “It was a short-hand for open innovation or the idea that working in a transparent,
participatory and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decision-making,
encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively.” So obviously those are good things and that’s
something that you want to have and I guess you were talking Bill a little about the apps
that make, you know, make life better for people to know where to park or I’ve heard
other people, who are still working in the White House talk about the purpose of open
government is being to help citizens improve their lives. Obviously that’s a really good
thing. But that leaves out all of that information that those of us who are doing investigations
are interested in. That’s not going to be on the table. And that’s not the kind of information that
people in Silicon Valley are going to be embracing. And so I think if anything so actually she
does go on specifically to say, “The aim of open government is to take advantage of
the know-how and entrepreneurial spirit of those outside government institutions to work
together with those inside government to solve problems” And so this raises you know a couple of huge
issues for me. One, which is, the open government, the direction of the open government at least
those are applying it, aren’t focusing on the kind of open government that we’re interested
in, that kind of information, and so we need to, we need to try to adjust focus or adjust
fire on that. And we need to also recognize that in the
end, it’s always going to be at least in some ways our responsibility outside of the
government to do that piloting. So as I mentioned before, POGO had this database that is as
good as we can do. You know we have someone working fulltime, scouring US attorneys’
databases and media sources to get back to court documents so we can get original source
data on any misconduct by any of the government’s top contractors. But this month the Congress
created a law that actually requires the government to replicate POGO’s database and it is called
FAPIIS, another one of these unfortunate acronyms Federal.. I don’t remember FAPIIS. But it’s
going to be very discreet and much smaller than what our database because it only includes
I think admissions of criminal wrong-doing essentially, so it’s not going to be too
many in there. And another example is OMB Watch’s work
on federal spending, which FederalSpending.org, which became USAspending.gov. And so I think
that, that what would be perfect is if on those accountability fronts, if the NGO world
was responsible for doing some of the piloting to get some of the ideas and kinks out but
then the government embrace the fact that it can do it more efficiently and more importantly,
it’s the job, it’s the job of the government to inform the public of its operations. And
it is a part of why, why there is open government and not just for the data that is useful for
the entrepreneurs. So I will stop. James Hamilton: Thank you, Chuck CHARLES LEWIS: Thanks Jay. Very interesting.
Wherever I’ve dealt with freedom of information in the US and around the world, companies
are always more interested in this data than journalist sadly. It is an embarrassment of
my profession to say that but I think it’s true. I don’t know, there are experts who
have probably studied this deeply but ahm.. My experience has been just as an investigative
reporter running the Center for Reporting Integrity, Investigative Reporting Workshop
and I have noticed, having been in DC way back in another century as my 10 year-old
would say. I remember the paper records we used to pour through in the mid 70s and late
70s. And so I guess we have to acknowledge some modicum of progress. The Internet comes
to mind and all of the other things, the accessibility factor is. The fact that you can access a
good amount of this from your house and your computer any part of the world is not a small
point, before I go deeper. At the center, what we were very proud of.
The same way the great graphics expert Edward Tufte doesn’t do a single graphic without
four, five six datasets, points of fact in a single graphic. We prided ourselves in trying
to combine datasets, so a story that had one dataset about a contribution was to me seen
as a limited story frankly. So we tried to do things in a slightly different way. We
also wanted to look at it in a macro way sometimes. So we had the earlier panel on the states.
We got 7,400 financial disclosure forms for every state lawmaker in America, which did
not endear us to the state legislators. And we posted all of those on the web, and then
we analyzed the several hundred conflicts of interest, since 41 of the 50 states legislatures
are private. Doctors on the health care committee, insurance executives on that committee, farmers
on the ag committee Doctors, yes they have great expertise, but there is only seven states
with ethics laws. It’s a problem. Ethics commissions had never met in ten years. And so that was the first time anyone had
ever looked at all 50 states at once. So combining these datasets, we had 45 papers in 45 states
that had also never looked at it apparently. They did if for their states, but we felt
the macro view was useful. Five twenty seven records, these independent
expenditure, this is memory lane for Bill and I having worked together at the Center.
Where a government agency was entrusted with disclosure for this and they had no idea of
what they were doing and no one could read the website. We had a web crawler and we put
up all the 527s independent data, regardless of what your political inclinations are, you
could get all that data from this obscure other data. So we were translating essentially,
although it was all technically English. We did three Buying of the President books,
where we would work on the books for one year to eighteen months with dozens of people.
And we would basically go through court records, federal records, state records, financial
disclosure records, voting pattern records, all expense paid trip records, lobbying records
regarding, relating maybe to those contributions, and then the top ten career patrons for their
entire life, which most people don’t have the time to gather that, we’re including
journalists, work-a-day traditional journalists. So that was useful. So I think the group, NGOs, whatever we are,
these so-called private groups, our role is to instigate and encourage and illuminate.
Our best moment I think was when we filed 73 Freedom of Information Act requests and
posted all of the Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts six months after the invasion, which
no one has ever done in a war, partly because there wasn’t an Internet back in those other
years. And those FOIA requests, we appealed one of them and we got the Haliburton contract
declassified and posted all of the contracts. And we were the first to disclose Haliburton
and got by far more than 2 to 1 over any other contract, the most money for those wars, in
those wars. But that’s again, multiple datasets and
being willing and in that case to appeal. I don’t think journalists appeal enough.
Every time I have appealed I win. So I want to start appealing more. Anyway, there are
a lot of other neat things. I also wanted to mention just a few groups that I am just
blown away by and always have. Besides POGO and Sunlight I should mention the National
Security Archive is just extraordinary to me. I think that they’ve filed more FOIA
requests than any public interest group in America, 40,000 FOIA requests in the last
30 years. They are spectacular in my view. TRAC, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse,
fortunately they have an acronym, TRAC, David Burnham, great journalist and Susan Long.
I think what they do is just amazing. They can take all the federal data and make it
understandable for lots of the public and journalists. At the Investigative Reporting Workshop, Professor
Wendell Cochran over here quietly watching the proceedings had the temerity to get all
of the FDIC data for every bank in the United States, 8,000 banks and compare the end of
year of 07 with the end of year 08 for the troubled asset ratio analysis for every one
of the banks. And we were preparing to put it on the website and the American Banking
Association contacted us and said that there would be a run on the banks. They were deeply,
deeply concerned. We asked them to spell their names and we posted up on the web and of course
we knew there would be no run on the banks. Wendell had done this in a newspaper in small
print 20 years earlier. There was no run, so, of course there was no run. And there
have been, what 12 million, I always get it wrong, Wendell, 12 million page views, is
that right? Something like that. That’s great. And we have now we are looking at broadband
access. The broadband companies don’t want you to know how much, how much penetration
or adoption they have in certain areas or in certain communities that they just haven’t
gotten to in terms of setting up that broadband. And they don’t want you to know how much
the cost is and what the speeds are. We just did a partial report. I mean I delivered a
report showing that the wealthiest suburbs here in DC have the lowest, cheapest rates
and certain other communities in DC and in the rural areas around the region have the
most expensive and it is pathetically slow. Stay tuned. We are doing an additional follow-up
using three different federal datasets, it will show that more deeply. And then we hope
to do that nationwide actually in the next year. But these are things that are intergovernmental.
You know in some cases we’re looking at different types of government agencies at
different levels and in other cases we’re using different federal datasets. I will spare
you because it is late in the afternoon, but when you combine three datasets you get the
best of each agency, what they are willing to show you. And if you combine the three,
look out world. It’s very exciting. One or two last points. I just want to mention
one of our frustrations and one of mine is the increasing ability of private companies,
contractors in particular, to block public access to FOIA laws. It is a perversion of
the 66 law in my view. Of course it reflects what’s happened that three out of four Federal
workers today are actually contractors. It’s not coincidental that five of the ten richest
counties in America happen to be around Washington, DC. Did I say that? Anyway, and so, so there is a problem here.
So we had a Frontline documentary. We are a Frontline co-production hub, one of the
two universities in the country doing it, American University. And we were looking at
outsourcing maintenance. The airlines they don’t put this in their commercials that
they are outsourcing the maintenance of their planes to China and Central America. The manuals,
by the way, are in English and the workers don’t speak English, sometimes. I don’t
always take a bus, so, it’s a problem. So anyway, we noticed that United Airlines,
we were looking at them and our FOIA request was blocked, because the Department of Defense
FOIA officer, they apparently do some carriage of stuff for DOD, blocked it because United
didn’t want us to see it and it was all about their safety record regarding maintenance,
so they had 80 or 90 pages completely blacked out. But the worst part is, we were getting ready
to film at their outsource company, their best friends over in China doing this for
them. Of course they were notified by United that they had received word from the Department
of Defense that this pesky group called the Investigative Reporting Workshop wanted to
look at the safety record and the shoot that we were planning in China the next week of
course was canceled. So in this instance, the FOIA officer assisted United to block
us from telling that story and it still makes me mad. So anyway, I think there are a lot of limitations
here that we all have known about for decades. And I think that it is the job of investigative
reporting non-profits, there are now 50 of these, five zero in the United States. There
weren’t fifty, three or four years ago, that’s another conference. But I believe
it is the job of the outside private groups that have a journalistic bent and backgrounds
in our case, it is our job to push the envelope in every possible way and get as much data
as we can. It is our job to show the public what’s really happening. But it is also
our job to show the government that we can get the data. When we were going to war in Iraq and we asked
the Defense Advisory Board for the information about the 30 people on that group including
Henry Kissinger, they said it was classified, we could not have their financial information
about their private industry ties. My staff said to me, “Well I guess we can’t do
that.” And I said “Oh yes we are.” And we went and we got, I said all these people
when they get federal contracts they are excited, they put out press releases. So we will start
gathering commercial data that Nexus Lexis, all of that stuff, we will start gathering
it up, PR Newswire. Well sure enough, one third of the people on that thing were that
year working for companies getting $80 billion in defense contracts. And they are advising
the Secretary of Defense about whether we should go to war. I wonder what they advised. So anyway. So I think even when you can’t
get the data, you can actually begin to assemble information that is not formally released
by the federal government, but incredibly valuable to the public. And I think that is
our role, too. So basically it’s our role to be a pain in the ass: to be very direct.
So I will yield my time to everybody else. James Hamilton: That would be a great T-shirt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *