Transparency Week Thoughts as Published in USA Today

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I’m delighted to have had an OpEd piece published in USA Today today:

How powerful is the Internet in getting crucial safety information out to the public? In one case, that information went out 707 times per minute. That’s how often, on average, people seeking information about salmonella-tainted peanut butter clicked on a website and widget sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over a six-week period a total of nearly 44 million hits.

This was exponentially more than the number of people who called agency hotline numbers. By typing the brand or bar code of a product into the search engine, parents everywhere could find out if the peanut butter sandwich they were putting in their kids’ lunch bags that day might contain salmonella.

Yet, the peanut butter problem also shows how far we have to go to prod government to make information available to the public. This week — Sunshine Week — news organizations shed light on how the public benefits from knowing what the government is doing, and why. And the Internet increasingly can play a role in providing more information to expose crises such as the salmonella story.

Recently, the story has unfolded about how one peanut-processing company, Peanut Corp. of America, could operate in filth with poorly trained employees and ignore its own tests showing salmonella infestation. We also found out that the only way the FDA could obtain copies of those testing records was to invoke terrorism laws. If the public had access to those records online, perhaps the illnesses of 19,000 people in 43 states and nine deaths could have been avoided.

Online resources also can help explain why the FDA can’t get inspection records more easily. Through OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign contributions and lobbying expenses, we can find out that food processing and sales companies have contributed nearly $95 million to federal candidates and parties over a decade. Those companies also spent more than $29 million last year on lobbying. The industry has often blocked efforts to strengthen FDA’s authority.

The salmonella story shows the many ways we are on the cusp of pushing for a government that is truly transparent. We now have the technological tools not only to get information out to the public, but also to help expose why there’s a problem in the first place.

It’s no accident that President Obama has made transparency a major part of his stimulus plan. He recognizes that conveying information to the public about how their money is being spent will enhance accountability. If done well, this approach can turn passive citizens into activists who help ensure that government works. With more newspapers laying off reporters and closing their doors, the Internet is allowing others to augment the press’ function in watchdogging government.

There’s a mighty appetite for this information. Last September, when the House took up the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill, House servers crashed after Speaker Nancy Pelosi posted the text on her Web site. When people did get their eyes on the text, they read it eagerly. Over the course of about two weeks, nearly 1,000 comments were posted on PublicMarkup.org, a site enabling the public to examine and debate legislation. Thousands of bloggers pored over the bill to find examples of earmarks, such as a reduction in taxes for wooden-arrow manufacturers.

A few years ago, bloggers known as the “Porkbusters” helped expose Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere.” This project to connect the tiny town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the even tinier Island of Gravina (population 50) cost some $320 million and was funded through three separate earmarks in a highway bill. Exposure created a huge furor and essentially stopped that earmark.

To take advantage of the full power of the Internet, there are some simple things every agency should do. All data should be made available in formats that are open, searchable and “mashable.” That way, creative programmers can more easily create new ways of looking at things. For example, the EarmarkWatch.org map shows thousands of earmarks in the fiscal 2008 defense-appropriations bill layered over a map of the country.

There is also much Congress should do. For years, the Senate has refused to require members to file their campaign finance records electronically. Instead, they submit their records in paper form to the Federal Election Commission, which must then go through the laborious process of re-converting them back into electronic records at the cost of about $250,000 a year. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., recently introduced a bill that would require electronic filing. The House of Representatives has done it this way for years.

And while Congress has strengthened lobbying disclosure laws, they still don’t go far enough. Lobbyists are required only to file quarterly, and then in very general terms. So ferreting out who lobbied on what and why is an exercise in “who done it” long after the fact. Lobbyists should file online daily with whom they meet and what they talk about.

A fundamental shift is beginning. Government is starting to recognize how the Internet can play a transformational role in restoring trust to its institutions and officials. And we, the people, are just beginning to imagine the ways we can use this transparency to demand more accountability.

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  • This is a great article, and congratulations on getting it posted in USAToday. It’s important that the dialogue around transparency and participatory democracy gets circulated amongst the masses.

    These issues you touched on reminded me of a great social enterprise start-up I stumbled on the other day called PublicStuff.org. They are creating a platform that will connect people to their local governments, for every city across the nation!

    You can help by voting for their project here: http://www.startupnation.com/elevator-pitch-2009/contestant/5140/index.php