The State of Transparency in the United States
In May 2013, President Barack Obama announced to the world that his administration had issued a new ambitious Open Data Policy. This new policy was unveiled within a broader executive order that mandated reforms to ensure increased levels of data transparency and public accountability on the part of the government.
In the same month, Project Open Data was set up to support the implementation of this new policy issued by the Obama administration. This wasn’t the first time that the Obama administration had made a drive to support open data initiatives. Way back in May 2009, the first US government data website data.gov was launched by the first Chief Information Officer of the US, Vivek Kundra. Also, in 2011 Obama made a statement committing the U.S. to support Open Government principles and the Open Government Partnership. These commitments were undertaken with the intention of transforming the way the government serves and engage with American citizens in the twenty-first century.
Under the Obama administration, a lot of progress was made towards opening up government datasets to greater public scrutiny. But since then, the American political landscape has been transformed completely. Fears of a mass roll-back of Obama-era data policy have thankfully not yet been realised — the Sunlight Foundation reports that only one dataset on animal welfare was removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website during 2017. But it did note that several websites had been altered, and resources removed to align with the new government’s policies, including resources related to publicly funded science and climate change.
According to the Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer, US adherence to globally recognised open data guidelines is still lacking in many areas. In the latest Open Knowledge International’s Global Open Data Index on US openness, ten out of fifteen publicly available datasets are not in optimal open data formats — although the US lands at #11 for openness overall, it remains the case that only 33% of US datasets are considered open. Amidst a reported surge in public perceptions of corruption, it is a crucial time for the government to commit full-heartedly to transparency and accountability in its data practices.
So, given this current context, what is the civil society in the U.S doing to hold institutions accountable and making sure the U.S government does not stray from the path of becoming more open and transparent in its operations? In this post, we talk to Meaghan Doherty, a technologist and researcher who is working on the front lines to tackle a crucial but overlooked aspect of holding institutions accountable: how does the public effectively communicate with their elected representatives?
Communicating with the government is never easy and the road is always bumpy. Most of the time there are plenty of bureaucratic roadblocks in the way. From a citizen’s point of view, it is a huge challenge to have our voices heard, and an even bigger challenge to make sure there are follow up actions afterwards. It is often easy to blame the government for being inefficient and inept, but we rarely try to understand how we can pragmatically improve the situation. This was the challenge that The OpenGov Foundation (OGF) decided to take on in their latest project. Recently, The OGF published a report about how they used a human-centred approach to investigate the systems, tools, constraints, and human drivers that fuel congressional constituent correspondence processes. Their approach was framed around three guiding questions
- How do congressional teams manage the process and operations of constituent engagement?
- How does constituent input shape actions and decisions?
- What capacity do congressional teams have for change?
We first learned about this fascinating project when last December, when we got in touch with data practitioner Meag to have a chat about the state of transparency in her country, the United States. She is a Senior UX Designer and Researcher at Agency CHIEF in Washington, DC. She is also a civic user researcher, designer, developer, and data wrangler. She has worked in open data for seven years. Meag’s work with The OGF focused on applying User-Centered Design to identify the difficulties faced by both the public and congressional staff when constituents communicate with their elected representatives in the US Congress. The project, From Voicemails to Votes, is a holistic look at the systems, tools, and constraints involved in the process, centred around its human drivers.
Meag: The Open Gov Foundation is a small non-profit here in D.C. and they started out as an organisation building technical platforms. For example,they had found a need within the U.S. Congress in that there was no good way to get real time feedback on pending legislation. And so they built an annotation based tool for legislation where people could go on and directly comment in on a bill. Since then, they had expanded their scope from building one-off tools to really understanding what are the technical capacity needs in a place like Congress.
I spent the past five months actually being in the field understanding the research question that we asked ourselves: how might we improve the constituent communication process? So, you often hear petitions in the US to call your congressman or senator and urge them to vote yes or no on a particular bill. But what’s the impact of that and what actually happens to that piece of information? Does it even get to the congressperson or do they just disappear into a black hole?
Starting out from questions like that, Meag and The OGF team dug deep into what worked, what didn’t, and why.
Meag: That experience gave me a chance to reflect on the way that we need to interact with government, and how we have to to understand their pain points, versus a lot of times we tend to point fingers and yell from the mountain tops that government is doing a bad job and they’re not giving us the information that we need, and that they need to be more open. But in this project we decided to sort of turned that on its heads to say “well let let’s go inside to find out why this isn’t working”.
Meag: Congress hasn’t increased their budgets for staffing or the number of people since, I think, the late 90s — the pre-internet era. Look at that stagnation and then the increase in volume of actual people talking to their congressperson — it’s 10x. So there’s the problem. And they have come up with creative ways to really start to filter through and understand the sentiment around this bulk of messages that they receive. There are advocacy groups that campaign people to send particular messages to your representative and even those flood the system because they’re also based on archaic systems. So, the volume of messages they have to handle is a disaster.
And then there’s also the issue of quality. Sometimes we met some members of Congress who said I want to I want to hear my constituents of course want to hear what they have to say. But oftentimes the quality of the interaction isn’t very good. So you have a person calling who might not actually know what the bill is but they just have they have concerns and they want to know more about it. So the volume is high and the quality of interactions is low. And so those are big pain point that we’re trying to solve and saying OK, if those are the pain points, what tools can we build around them. And in terms of the methodology that we used, again this is a nonprofit science research study, so of course it has to have many limitations which are clearly documented.
Throughout the project, Meag and her team have tried to be geographically and demographically diverse. They have met, Republicans, Democrats, and selected members of Congress.
Meag: One thing I wished we could have done more of, given more time and resources, was to have had more interactions with the non-tech savvy groups of people. Because there are still some members of Congress who don’t use email and they read everything by hand. Congress has 435 different offices, so it’s hard to cover them all. But for me and I love doing this kind of UX research stuff so if we can get it done in the future I’d love to talk to through those because I learned a lot in just being OK with the messiness of doing user research with institutions like Congress. It’s very transactional based place. So even things like trying to find a space for a meeting can take two weeks. So there are a lot of constraints that I don’t think exist in doing UX research in other contexts.
They interviewed congressional staff to find out in detail what the process of communicating with Congress looked like, and these interviews revealed some interestingly convoluted mechanisms.
Meag: How does a piece of information go from constituents mouth to a congressperson. And then how congressional staff use that constituent input. So do they take it, write on a post it note and watch it disappear. And if yes, what is the criteria for information that is reaching all the way to the congressperson’s desk.
We were really trying to understand and look at what staffers are going through, These are frontline staff, junior people, interns, who are the front lines of the office answering phone calls and dealing with constituents. We always looked at what the current process was and also what was. Did they even think that it was a problem or did they even understand that there were better ways of data entry or logging phone calls. There’s some insane instances which you might be interested to read about in the report, an intern writing on a Post-it note a person’s concern and then going back to an Excel spreadsheet typing in that concern, and then staff are going to then transcribe that spreadsheet into a database… and then nothing.
Despite all the frustrations and challenges, Meag considers this UX research project to be the best work she has done.
Meag: The UX research project have been by far in the largest scope of work, that’s my..well I was a team of four, so it was not just me. I have to give a shout out to all the other hardworking researchers. I came on to the team in a freelance capacity as a subject matter expert, having worked within Congress and then having worked outside with The Open Gov Foundation in an official way. And so I would say having insight and understanding of how the system works that helped me be a really important member of the team. And I won’t go so far as to say it wouldn’t have definitely happened if I weren’t there. But it was really important that I have had that first hand experience — the person who actually has sat in that chair, the person who has answered phone calls. That was the best part and also most gratifying.
The more we explore issues around open data in closed societies, and the more we talk to people working in the field, the more we realise that opening up the data is just one of the steps involved in using technology as a tool for increased transparency and accountability. Simply making data available does not often translate automatically to increased accountability on the part of governments and other institutions. That is why the research that Meag does is so important. We need more deep dives examining the systems that, on paper at least, are supposed to be mechanisms that ensure accountability. Open data can only deliver on its promises when it’s a part of a broader scope of work where different people with different skill sets look for innovative ways to make sure data is not only openly available but is used effectively.
For Meag, open data is “open, public, electronic and necessary” — quoting the U.S government’s recent legislative Open Government Data Act passed by the House of Representatives on 15th November last year.
She believes as a researcher in the usability and transportability of information. Meag confirms that the U.S has made a lot of progress when it comes to open government data.
Meag: Just in the past decade, there’s been a lot of a lot of legislation and a lot of interest around open government data. We’ve made a lot of progress. But as we move into the present day there’s a lot of work to be done on just how in codifying things and making open data the default — since right now it is often not the default. We are working backwards, trying to open up the less open data. So [it’s a] sliding scale between open and closed.
The open data I’ve tried to access in the past has been accessible but I wouldn’t say it’s been understandable. There’s a lot more to be done to get that, for example, fully downloadable datasets available for a lot of stuff. But the DATA Act has been really helpful here. Data.gov did great work.
Things are moving in the right direction, but a lot to work to be done and I think keeping those laws and that push towards greater transparency will keep us moving forward. I’m hopeful for the future.
This optimistic picture is of course countered by recent political developments in the US.
Meag: Yeah, the challenges, I’ll speak to you as a practitioner. The big picture from my perspective is we have a lot of things in place. I mean of course with the new administration, there has been a lot of attacks on information and expression. We’ve seen shortly after the inauguration, there were open data sets that were taken down from certain agencies such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). There has been a threat to many parts of our lives, but for open data specifically, from the transparency and accountability lens, I think we are doing a good job at making sure that those efforts continue. And again, back to the passing of these data laws that are happening or in progress. I know they’ll become law soon. Open Data is still a big part of the administration and it’s a bipartisan issue, we’ve seen over years. Open data, transparency and accountability are just as important among our constituents regardless of political leanings because having equal access or more better access is going to be good for everyone.
Participation, inclusion, and making things work for everyone, is something that Meag always comes back to across all the different projects that she has worked on.
Meag: I’m constantly reminding myself — whether it’s a freelance project or with a larger scale, longer term organization — to always keep the end in mind. Also knowing that in open source world, anyone can help. And so I’m constantly trying to ensure that I’m building and documenting in a way that allows for collaboration. A couple weeks ago, we had a whole session on what a successful of an open data project look like. And a lot of the ideas that came out of it were exactly that: building in such a way that actually is inclusive and encourages participation.
You can also read more about Meag’s work on the advocacy community to build a data literacy application so that all activists have the toolkit to use and take action on data here.
The original post can be found on Medium here.