On Oversight in Public

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(cross posted from our Google Group)

Jon Henke wrote the following provocation, and I decided to respond to the whole list, since it’s a topic I think many here will be interested in. (I asked his permission to post in full.)

His email is first, and then my responses:

I had a fascinating conversation with a team leader from the GAO today, and two thoughts occurred to me:

1. GAO reports are done at the request of Congressmen, publicly available, and (as I understand it) reasonably dispassionate and thorough. Would it be possible (or useful) to have a sympathetic Senator request a GAO report on the use of technology in the Senate? Or on opportunities for Congressional transparency?

Whether it arrived in time to be useful to the Open Senate Project (doubtful), the examination process should provide very helpful ideas and motivation for progress. Perhaps a broader study could even provide a template for how the Obama administration could deploy technology and transparency to the executive branch agencies.

2. GAO studies typically last around a year, and upon their completion they are published online. But why are they only published when they are done? This is a public interest process. Why not make the public part of the process? Once a study is commissioned, and the outline of the project (what will be studied, how, what data is considered, etc) is devised, why not put that online and allow public comment about each section? If the GAO is studying veterans benefits, why just have a small team examining whatever evidence they can find? This is a job that screams “crowdsourcing/wisdom of crowds”.

What’s more, a collaborative process would both (a) allow input and ideas from citizens, and (b) allow experts (and yes, lobbyists) to make their arguments publicly, where they can (and should) be considered and integrated into the thought process. That could provide a useful way to evaluate the reports and the input of various groups, too (Did their predictions obtain in reality? Were important ideas ignored?)

Thoughts?

(and now responses)

I had a fascinating conversation with a team leader from the GAO today, and two thoughts occurred to me:

1. GAO reports are done at the request of Congressmen, publicly available, and (as I understand it) reasonably dispassionate and thorough. Would it be possible (or useful) to have a sympathetic Senator request a GAO report on the use of technology in the Senate? Or on opportunities for Congressional transparency?

I agree with the first sentence. There’s a backlog of reports requested, though, and first priority is given to committee chairs’ requests. (Here’s the GAO document (pdf) that lays out their triage arrangement for requests.) They’re also all public, although some of them are withheld from web publication by agency request.

I’m not sure how likely it is that GAO (or Congress) would prepare a report on transparency; CRS is more likely to respond (or to be asked) to prepare such a report. One recent, very similar report was prepared by Walter Oleszek, which I reviewed here, in September of 2007. I’m not sure if the report has been updated since, but it’s a great resource.

Applying GAO to Congress isn’t done all that frequently (as far as I’m aware), since GAO is a legislative support agency (like CRS or CBO), though of a slightly different type, acting often more like an executive agency. GAO’s statutory requirement to review financial disclosure within all 3 branches has been (apparently) routinely ignored since approximately 1990.

Whether it arrived in time to be useful to the Open Senate Project (doubtful), the examination process should provide very helpful ideas and motivation for progress. Perhaps a broader study could even provide a template for how the Obama administration could deploy technology and transparency to the executive branch agencies.

With those cautions in mind, I’d love to see a GAO review of transparency in Congress, or even across all three branches, especially since many of the disclosure requirements have roots in the same laws (like the Ethics in Government Act, which sets financial disclosure requirements for high ranking staff in all three branches.) This is probably one among many tools to spur Congress into some constructive introspection, including CRS reports, committee hearings, legislation, sense of the Congress resolutions, informal advisory recommendations (cf this list, OMBWatch’s report, or the ABA rulemaking report), lawsuits, committee reports, rulebreakers and internal champions, media coverage, etc. It would likely have to come from some committee chair (or leadership figure) with relevant jurisdiction, like a leg. branch approps chair, government reform chair (in the House) or gov’t affairs cmte chair (in the Senate).

2. GAO studies typically last around a year, and upon their completion they are published online. But why are they only published when they are done? This is a public interest process. Why not make the public part of the process? Once a study is commissioned, and the outline of the project (what will be studied, how, what data is considered, etc) is devised, why not put that online and allow public comment about each section? If the GAO is studying veterans benefits, why just have a small team examining whatever evidence they can find? This is a job that screams “crowdsourcing/wisdom of crowds”.

I agree with this in spirit, but I strongly fear unintended consequences here. Take the Office of Legislative Counsel, for example. This is a quiet, isolated room full of legal scholars with expertise in the actual drafting of laws. They operate under strict guidelines over what they can share, since the same drafters could conceivably be asked to write opposing bills for political opponents. Maintaining confidentiality and objectivity is essential, since everyone has an interest in trusting that bills will be well written.

The same is true for some CRS documents (those we’re NOT asking to have published), where Members sometimes turn for confidential advice. I think confusion between these documents and the circulable documents causes some of the resistance to an open CRS we find on the hill.

GAO, not unlike a police department, needs whatever tools are necessary for effective oversight, and publishing only completed documents probably falls into that category.

What’s more, a collaborative process would both (a) allow input and ideas from citizens, and (b) allow experts (and yes, lobbyists) to make their arguments publicly, where they can (and should) be considered and integrated into the thought process. That could provide a useful way to evaluate the reports and the input of various groups, too (Did their predictions obtain in reality? Were important ideas ignored?)

Again, with those cautions in place, I’m a HUGE fan of the idea that an empowered public can strengthen our checks and balances, and reinstate effective oversight both within and between branches. That’s why I’d like to see a collection of upcoming reports to Congress (since it would empower public watchdogs and oversight staff alike), and why I started the (now defunct) Congressional Committees Project two years ago.

Integrating public activity into carefully constructed government processes can be tricky, which is one reason that the Peer to Patent Project‘s success is so impressive — it’s obviously the product of some brilliant and careful planning.

I’d love to see oversight committees, GAO, or even CRS start to address the possibilities presented to them by communities such as this one, but the first steps are hard to find, especially for as heated a topic as oversight, where jurisdictions are carefully protected, and where the stakes are especially high for those under investigation. If even commenting on the quintessentially public bill is so hard to implement, a publicly empowered oversight process will be even tougher to generate.

It’s a good first step, though, that people within those institutions we wish to change are following along closely (many are on this list), and that policy makers and the media are recognizing the developing capacity for public relevance.

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