Congress has a big problem when it comes to oversight. The federal government has grown vastly larger over the past century, but Congress has done little to empower itself to keep track.
However, thanks to open data, those outside the government now can lend a helping hand.
The U.S. Constitution set up a principle-agent relationship between Congress and the executive branch. Congress writes the laws, the agencies implement them and the legislature (the principle) is supposed to keep watch. This is representative democracy—the people’s chosen representatives are duty-bound to protect the public’s liberties and tax dollars.
Yet as I previously described in these pages, Congress’ ability to conduct oversight has not kept pace with the growth of the task. The federal government now employs 4.1 million civilian and military employees. Annual spending is about $3.9 trillion and growing. The federal government is active in myriad aspects of modern life and policies grow more complex with each passing year.
Consider this: in 1915, there was no federal role in primary or secondary schooling. The landmark 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which solidified federal school funding, was 32 pages in length. The 2001 reauthorization of the ESEA, known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, was 670 pages.
Congress last significantly augmented its oversight capability in the early 1970s, when the fax machine was cutting edge and leaded gasoline the norm. Myopically, the legislature actually has decreased its number of support staff since 1985 and Congress is in session barely half of each year.
Bigger government + policies that are more complex + fewer committee staff + fewer Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service experts + an absentee Congress = a formula for unaccountable government.
Fortunately, open government data can help redress the balance a little. Thanks to a variety of executive directives and legislative policies, government agencies are making more and more data available online and in XML format. The Census Bureau, for example, offers amazing amounts of data. Data.gov holds a trove of data sets on agriculture, commerce, education and more. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs offers a regulatory dashboard where anyone can view and pull data on rulemaking.
Certainly, the government could put much more data online. Public administrators and the public should demand it do so. Why? Because releasing government data in free and usable formats empowers oversight outside of the government. Anyone with an Internet connection and curiosity can dig in and develop observations—some useful, some not so much—about how effectively government is working.
In 2004, Josh Tauberer put GovTrack online. It took the legislative data in Congress’ Thomas.gov, mixed it with other government data and presented it all a much more attractive and useful interface. When Congress redeveloped Thomas.gov into Congress.gov, it used ideas from GovTrack. The OpenGov Foundation, for example, has run Hack4Congress events that partner hackers with congressional staff to devise apps that help congressional staff operate more efficiently.
For researchers, open government data are an intellectual windfall. This past month, I was at the autumn conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. My panel on bureaucratic policy and policymakinghad presentations on federal fire-reduction spending projects, federal disaster declarations, regulatory policy and congressional spending. The papers were interesting and had surprising findings.
A data-heavy paper presented by George Washington University’s Stuart Kasdin and two coauthors found that a change in party control of Congress shifts the spending of fire-prevention dollars by the National Forest Service.Henry Smart of Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that localities that got more federal disaster mitigation dollars also had more disaster declarations. Which prompts the question: are the mitigation dollars having effect?
An analysis of budget and government-performance data by Hyokyung Kwak and Jinhai Yu of the University of Kentucky showed that government programs that have a hard time quantifying their results may be more likely to face budget cuts. Another data dive by Kasdin and George Washington University’s Christopher Carrigan found that agencies face less resistance to their proposed regulations when they write longer, more detailed rules.
None of these papers could have been written a decade ago—certainly not without huge effort, hefty data collection and assembly costs that the authors may not have been able to bear. But there the studies are and once they are developed into journal publications or think-tank papers, they may well catch Congress’ eye.
This is not exactly how the founders imagined government oversight working when they drew up our Constitution. But the founders would approve of open government data. For it was James Madison, architect of the Constitution, who wrote:
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.