MAGIC Session 4 part 2

Uploaded by usnationalarchives on 12.08.2011

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
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,
which became 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
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
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
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
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.