Transparency, Easier Said Than Done

On December 5th, John Podesta sent a memo to Obama transition team members, “Seat at the Table” Transparency Policy – EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY,” which was posted as part of a news report from ABC’s Jake Tapper:

As an extension of the unprecedented ethics guidelines already in place for the Obama-Biden
Transition Project, we take another significant step towards transparency of our efforts for the
American people. Every day, we meet with organizations who present ideas for the Transition
and the Administration, both orally and in writing. We want to ensure that we give the American
people a “seat at the table” and that we receive the benefit of their feedback.

Accordingly, any documents from official meetings with outside organizations will be posted on
our website for people to review and comment on. In addition to presenting ideas as individuals
at www.change.gov, the American people deserve a “seat at the table” as we receive input from
organizations and make decisions. In the interest of protecting the personal privacy of
individuals, this policy does not apply to personnel matters and hiring recommendations.

We’ve been looking at the “Your Seat at the Table” site at the Change.gov, and have to say it’s a mess. Documents are just thrown up with no organization, inaccurate titles if any, and we doubt that every document has been actually put online. It’s difficult to identify documents  submitted as a part of a meeting with the transition team or sent in from outside because a group or person wanted the document listed and line.

An example of the problems is this document, “Overview of Corporate Immunity from Lawsuits.” It’s a foaming attack against the principle of federal preemption, especially as it applies to the pharmaceutical industry, but the source of the document is not even identified. That’s not transparency. We did recognize the memo as a propaganda memo from the trial lawyers, the American Association for Justice, but you’d have to be to up to speed on preemption issues to know that.

Last week’s “On the Media” political commentary program from WNYC Radio included a segment, “One Click Disclosure,” with an interview of Greg Elin of the Sunlight Foundation, discussing USAspending.gov, a site created by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The site documents government contracts, the goal being transparency. It’s eminently searchable and accessible by outside groups, Elin reports. He comments:

Government must make transparency its responsibility. And in our world, when we say information is public, it means that the information has to be online.

Presentation and the data matter, as part of being online. Ten years ago, if you were to publish information in .pdf documents or Word documents, or simply put it up on a webpage, that was really pretty far-reaching.

In 2009, in 2010, online means that you have access to the structure of data as well. USASpending.gov is exceptional in that it is end-user searchable, so a human being can come and use it, and it has an API, so that another computer can come interact with that data.

So by the Sunlight’s Foundation standards, the Your Seat at the Table site would have been “pretty far-reaching” a decade ago. Today, not.

We write this not as a shot at the Obama Administration in Waiting, but as an observation that it’s easy to promise transparency and then let the details slip. We are especially concerned that the transparency will be inconsistently applied, that is, self-identified “consumer” or environmental groups will escape the reporting demanded of businesses because those groups supposedly have the public interest at heart, unlike “evil corporations.” (“On the Media,” a reliabily left-liberal program antagonistic toward business, only mentions examples of corporate lobbying and contracts, e.g., Boeing and Glaxo-Smith-Kline.)

Simple rule: If Corporation X’s activities are documented, then those of Environmental Activist Group Y must be as well.

More at Point of Law.com.

Meanwhile, a related story appeared on NPR’s “Sunday Edition” reporting on the St. Petersburg Times’ project, the ObamaMeter.

PolitiFact.com, run by the St. Petersburg Times, has created what they call the “Obameter.” It tracks the president-elect’s campaign promises and whether or not Obama has fulfilled, broken or taken no action on his assurances.

According to the site, Obama has made 510 promises. “We were surprised at the scope and the sheer number,” says Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.com. He says the number “is really more than Bush and Clinton first-term promises combined.”

 

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