Forget leaked cables: There's enough juicy political nonsense lurking in the public record to satisfy the 24-hour news cycle until 2012. However, unless citizens have an entire team scouring government video for hilarious hypocrisy, like the Daily Show's Jon Stewart does, uncovering the nuggets of truth is like searching for hay in a needle stack. New open government initiatives from the conservative dominated House, however, aim to democratize the watchdog process by releasing public records in an easily searchable format.
Last Friday, House Speaker John Boehner and Leader Eric Cantor sent a note to the House Clerk that told her to prepare "publicly releasing the House’s legislative data in machine-readable formats." Currently, the public record is not stored in a standardized format, so it's difficult for developers to build software that can sort through all of the data, such as committee hearing transcripts, amendments, and upcoming items.
Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency watchdog and platform developer organization, says that machine-readable data will have exciting new consequences for democracy.
First, reams of video and public transcripts will become easily searchable. The power of uncovering embarrassing statements has, for the past decade, best been illustrated nightly by political comedians like Stewart and Stephen Colbert. While campaign speeches, TV interviews, and debates are often carefully sanitized partisan rallying cries, the substantive conversations of congressional subcommittees reveal the political underbelly of an institution steeped in quid pro quo politicking, shallow understandings of legislation, and the occasional off-the-wall crazy statement. Computer searchable transcripts may make finding these gems much easier.
Second, Schuman says that programmers might be able to uncover interesting patterns of influence, such as how talking points ripple throughout the unconscious lexicon of Capitol Hill. For instance, do congressmen parrot the arguments and phrases of Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow? Computational advances in social networking analysis could easily be applied to transcript data, revealing fascinating epicenters of influence.
Finally, Digital Communications Director for Cantor, Matt Lira, is most excited for the innovative ways that entrepreneurs can make volumes of raw data commercially useful. In part, this is because "The government, in general, is pretty lousy at interfaces," admits Lira. In an interview with Wired, U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra recounts the history of how data has led to enormous market opportunities for tech entrepreneurs.
"Think about the Department of Defense. When satellite data was made available, you had this explosion in the private GPS market. Now GPS is available on your iPhone, so if you're lost you can navigate. The car rental industry uses it. Google and Facebook use it to help you get real-time information on where friends are and where the closest restaurant is. The key is recognizing that we don't have a monopoly on good ideas and that the federal government doesn't have infinite resources."
The free market has had a lucrative history of creating gold-plated nozzles for the firehose of government data.
Politically speaking, this means that, as the United States battles two ongoing wars, digs itself out of a debilitating recession, and attempts to rein in massive debt, finding time to improve the institution of government itself is no small feat. The free market benefits of e-government are certainly a selling point on Lira's side of the aisle.
Since winning the 2010 midterm election on the age-old promise of reforming government, Republicans have, at the very least, made significant headway in government transparency, first with the 72-hour rule, that required legislation to be posted online three days in advance of a vote (i.e. no more cramming 1,000-plus page bills through at the last minute; though we have to wonder where all this desire for transparency was during Bush's two terms). "We said in the Pledge to America that we were going to open the institution," Lira says proudly, "this is a big move in that direction."
[Image: Flickr user Brooks Elliott]