June 4, 2009

Transparency disappointment

To transparency activists, the chance to participate in a web discussion on how to open up government is a dream come true. Among the 1.9 million federal employees whose ideas were actually solicited, the response was slightly more tepid. After it was all said and done only 91 comments were offered on what they would do to open up government.

Why such a limited response? Gary Bass of OMB Watch thinks it was due to a lack of publicity and a fear some had of "speaking out" on the issue without their boss' consent.

Although the number of suggestions was low, some were quite good:

Many government workers pointed out legal and regulatory obstacles that make it hard for the federal government to take full advantage of new technologies. The simple practice of linking to or embedding YouTube videos often violates federal site rules unless the video is transcribed for the blind or visually impaired. Others noted that almost any federal Web page which asks users to input information is supposed to be approved in advance by the Office of Management and Budget in accordance with the little-known Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980.

"We can't even run a purely voluntary suggestion box or unobtrusive survey without getting approval that can take months. The result is that we often don't go to the trouble," one comment said.

The more open "brainstorming" phase, which sought suggestions from the public, also had its fair share of issues, including the validity of Barack Obama's birth certificate and (a perennial favorite of online discussions) the legalization of marijuana. House Minority Leader John Boehner's suggestion requiring Congress to post spending bills online for 72 hours prior to voting was highly regarded but dismissed as outside the White House's purview.

What should be made of all this? Washington has an institutionalized aversion to transparency. You can introduce new technology (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs) all you want but without the accompanying changes in the culture of Washington none of it will significantly matter. Let's hope that as younger generations take the place of older workers in Washington the resistance to transparency-enhancing technology will be diminished.