Obama, Congress get poor grades for Internet openness

Both Obama administration and House Republicans "have a long way to go" when it comes to allowing programmers and the public access to key government data, forthcoming report says.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
President Obama, shown here during his first day in office, started by pledging an "unprecedented" level of transparency. That didn't happen.
President Obama, shown here during his first day in office, started by pledging an "unprecedented" level of transparency. That didn't happen. White House

Both President Obama and the U.S. Congress get failing grades for not allowing the public to learn through the Internet what's actually happening in Washington, D.C, according to a forthcoming report.

It might seem like a surprising conclusion after Obama launched Data.gov and endorsed greater transparency on his first day in office, saying at the time that he's committed to an "unprecedented level of openness in government."

But since then, says the report from the Cato Institute scheduled to be released next week and reviewed by CNET, there's been an "Obama transparency tailspin." Cato is a non-profit, non-partisan libertarian think tank.

Cato also slaps Congress with some failing grades for not putting sufficient information about proposed laws on the Web -- information that's available to insiders and well-connected lobbyists. The Senate scores better in other areas, such as placing information about senators online in a machine-readable format.

Not exactly a report card worth bragging about.
Not exactly a report card worth bragging about. Click for larger image. Cato Institute

"House Republicans, who manage a far smaller segment of the government, started from a higher transparency baseline, made modest promises, and have taken limited steps to execute on those promises," the report concludes.

The author, Cato policy analyst Jim Harper, who has convened a series of meetings on how to database-ify federal records, says even something as simple as an electronic organizational chart with unique identifiers would help the public learn where federal spending goes. None currently exists.

Harper's ultimate goal is for federal agencies and the U.S. Congress to publish data in a standard format like XML or JSON, so programmers could start to analyze it and try to root out waste or fraud. Instead of a single government-created application, he says, using a machine-readable format would allow an ecosystem of applications to emerge.

"I'm really hopeful that the transparency project will reduce the need for partisanship and ideology, which are often shorthands people use because they don't know what is actually going on," Harper says.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco, says President George W. Bush's administration was "was widely regarded as the most secretive." But, EFF says, "the Obama administration has fallen far short of the goals stated in the January 2009 memo, and in many ways has made the government more secretive."

A Bloomberg article in September reported that the Obama administration flunked an open-government test, saying that "19 of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information."