A Facebook for Federal Bureaucrats, or What Real Government Transparency Might Look Like

LikeWatching Aneesh Chopra rather lamely defend the Obama Administration’s record on its use of information technology on The Daily Show this week, I was struck by the same problem that Stewart was struggling with — the very slow pace of change, and the unmistakeable disappointment that has set in concerning the early promises that were made by the incoming Obama folks way back when about sunshine in government.

More recently, the debacle of the Obamacare rollout became Exhibit A of government’s incompetence at a time when faith in government to take action about Things That Matter was the issue being debated. Of course, those serious hiccups have now been more or less resolved, and millions have used the Web and other means to enroll in the much-demonized health care coverage.

Although not without its flaws, this is a major advance, both for the country and for covered families and individuals. Perhaps one day soon (though presumably not before we all re-live it via the next election cycle), these significant positives will block out our collective trauma over that massive technical fail.

Yet the overall picture — including Stewart’s example of rampant mismanagement of the databases on veterans at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs — is dismal. While some groups at the state and federal level like the Sunlight Foundation continue to make progress on interactive tools for impacting proposed legislation in Congress or a statehouse, the federal agencies today remain largely impenetrable fortresses, accessible to lobbyists and others who know the ropes, but inexplicably mysterious for most Americans.

The federal departments, commissions and agencies preside over the details of all the rules that most affect the lives of millions of Americans, deciding everything from auto and consumer safety standards to environmental and business rules. While they do have to conduct a public process (called notice-and-comment rulemaking) on the most significant decisions, much of their internal workings remain shielded from any real public disclosure. Only the true Washington cognoscenti — and the allies they inform — are aware of the timing of rules and the process for commenting.

The text of these proposed rules, and I’ve suffered through more than 70 of them over the years, are written in dense bureacrat-ese, typically with lamentable passive voice and ample application of jargon. Although they all live on-line at regulations.gov, understanding the issues and what’s at stake in particular decisions is a form of inside baseball that is so complex that it almost always gives organized corporate stakeholders an outsized role in decisions.

Even if the public at large would benefit from a decision, they are simply unlikely to know about or be able to join the debate in a manner that evens the playing field. Underpowered non-profits like the ones I’ve worked for struggle along, staging battles on principle and always aware of their limited resources and the political realities.

Of course, the public’s larger interest could be represented by the Congress, which doles out assignments to the agencies. And sometimes a very strongly written law does result in a rule that is not too watered down by the inevitable industry response. But many of the best laws were enacted by a prior version of Congress, often several decades ago or longer, and some are showing their age.

Yet advocates are, for the most part, too frightened by the politics and dysfunction of the current Congress to suggest that they be re-written. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance limitations, the money of corporate donors speaks even more loudly on the Hill today than it does within the agencies.

Of course, for better or worse, the agencies also answer to an elected official — the President. They could be much more vigorous defenders of the public interest if allowed to be. Although they must heed the language handed to them by Congress, within those terms, they have tremendous power and discretion over their enforcement activities and priorities. But whenever they do wield power in ways that business interests find unreasonable (often with rules that merely require business to internalize the costs of their actions), the conventional script allows them to be accused of unaccountability, facelessness and all the rest.

It occurs to me, then, that the real goal of government’s use of information technology should be to give the government a face. Or Facebook. Or Facebook-like tool, without ads or annoying apps.

The real information gap in Washington is not about databases that should be shared by federal agencies, though that should certainly be addressed forthwith. The problem is that the map of influence and power — identifying the decision makers, their powers, and the ways to engage them — is utterly obscure except to an elite few.

Today, agencies often hide their internal processes behind an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that covers agency “deliberation.” This is a legal privilege that can be — though need not be — invoked if a federal agency wants the freedom to think about an issue inside the government before coming to a decision. The notion has some merit, as we do want agencies to think.

But it would be no impediment to require the federal agencies that conduct public business to publish information on a Web site about which employees within an agency are tasked with which decisions, and to put all of their meetings and meeting notes with outside parties also on-line as a routine matter. The expertise of government employees, their backgrounds and work history could be included in this “map” of who is thinking about what. Not everyone would need to be listed, of course, just those with decision-making power. And perhaps there’s other information that would belong on these pages as well.

Simply put, it should be far simpler for ordinary citizens to understand the arcane workings of an agency on an issue of concern to them, and to contact the right official if they have relevant information. When I worked on automotive safety, one of the best sources of information were retired engineers, a few of whom had worked for automakers and knew how their decisions happened. They sometimes had extraordinary amounts of information about industry’s bad habits, but no one to tell. A truly transparent government structure might similarly elicit troves of surprising and useful information from sources that remain unidentified today.

Unlike combining millions of government records, this system could be built fresh across the agencies as new hires are made. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that most of our government’s civil servants are nobly trying to do the right thing. It would be of great assistance to our tired political debate about the “role of government” if the agencies looked less like blobs and more like real people doing their jobs — you know, the ones that Congress (and therefore, we the people) gave them.

With the unleashing of the money rules for elected officials thanks to SCOTUS, it’s also our next best line of defense. But the agencies today are under siege, and have been for decades. Figuring out how to engage the public far more directly in their important decisions would better equip them to stand up for their legal principles, and defend the actual public interests at stake. Who knows? It might even lead to some stronger health, safety and environmental rules, thereby showing government at its best.

The agencies have breathed life into accomplishments ranging from the Clean Water Act to the rules that took lead out of gasoline. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes (see No Child Left Behind), but we should be able to talk to them when they are screwing it up more directly. We need them to succeed and be understood, and not to be so easily demonized. As long direct conversations with agency officials are generally reserved for issue experts and corporate lobbyists, the democracy part of our project remains an up-hill fight both inside and outside their walls.

So innovate on that, please. Information transparency is nice — all well and good. Figuring out a workable, clear system to create influence transparency, however — now that’s a ticket for institutional transformation.

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The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

###

I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

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Who’s a Moocher, Really?

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

Mooch much?

Romney’s revealing slip at a private fundraiser has already occasioned a lot of commentary, including a piece by David Brooks bemoaning his campaign’s “incompetence.”

Brooks straightforwardly addresses some of Romney’s errant notions. First, the idea that those who get government money mainly vote for Democrats is false of course, as progressives often bemoan: instead, many are veterans and working class whites who tend to vote Republican. And he points out that these alleged “moochers” also includes millions of retirees. Gosh, vets, old people and poor people – why are you guys always on the take?

Brooks generously says that this is not the real Romney, but a gussied-up campaign version of a Romney-bot. But it seems to me that Romney’s comments instead reveal how uncritically he’s consumed the GOP’s “job creator” Kool-Aid.

One undercurrent of his comments is that unlike the “moocher” class, he and any other people rich enough to attend a big-money Republican fundraiser earned their extraordinary wealth, with bootstraps or otherwise. Of course, Romney perpetually appears not to notice that he was born on third base, which is one of the reasons he keeps committing the same gaffe over and over and over again, like hari kari inflicted with a sharpened silver spoon.

But even beyond his lamentable personal arrogance, the suggestion that he deserves what he has is worth examining. As a governor’s son, handed any opportunity in the world, Romney chose the easiest and most lucrative, but heartless, way to make lots of moola: private equity. This says something at least about his character, in a way that makes Brooks’ assessment look overly generous.

What is private equity, anyway, and is it something of real value, such that someone like Romney is morally better than a moocher? The basic model for private equity firms is to buy a company, in order to “fix” and sell it. The catch? “Fixing” it generally means you have to do one or both of two things: increase revenues or cut costs. To increase revenues is hard, requiring great management and long-term investment. So private equity firms cut costs – providing a short-term answer for investors wanting high, fast returns.

The upshot is that most private equity deals take advantage of tax writeoffs for corporate debt, leveraging a company and risking its health to improve profits for the equity firm. The focus on quick returns almost guarantees this approach. Does this add value? Perhaps sometimes, but more times than not it mainly pads the pockets of investors.

Does it generate “efficiencies”? Who can say, really? Efficiencies for whom and for what purpose? The received wisdom is that anything that makes someone a dollar expresses value, but in societal or moral terms that’s often far from the truth.

As Mother Jones has since revealed, the video in question was filmed at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at private equity manager Rick Leder’s house. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Leder and his financial value-added:

Mr. Leder personifies the debates now swirling around this lucrative corner of finance. To his critics, he represents everything that’s wrong with this setup. In recent years, a large number of the companies that Sun Capital has acquired have run into serious trouble, eliminated jobs or both. Since 2008, some 25 of its companies—roughly one of every five it owns—have filed for bankruptcy. Among the losers was Friendly’s, the restaurant chain known for its Jim Dandy sundaes and Fribble shakes. (Sun Capital was accused by a federal agency of pushing Friendly’s into bankruptcy last year to avoid paying pensions to the chain’s employees; Sun disputes that contention.) Another company that sank into bankruptcy was Real Mex, owner of the Chevy’s restaurant chain. In that case, Mr. Leder lost money for his investors not once, but twice.

And Leder evidently also throws racy parties that require a lot of chlorine for the pool (yawn). So there’s that.

But even setting aside for a moment, if we can, this seedy world of hilariously cliched corporate raiders, why should we treat Republican’s moral assumption that corporate earnings are real, earned, and genuine as sacrosanct?

Obama got in some hot water a little earlier in the summer and was much-derided at the Republican convention for an honest and unremarkable statement about how the money earned by businesses depends on social investments by the government — i.e., all of us — for success. Really, this is fact, and not particularly controversial.

As Obama would know, it’s black letter law that companies may be sued wherever they do business because they “avail” themselves of roads, bridges, and the mail. In addition to the obvious examples Obama was describing, every time an uninsured low-income worker gets sick, and goes to a hospital for charity care, we all subsidize their care (an issue that “Obamacare” will help address by giving that person real insurance at last).

Every time the federal government makes college more affordable for students, or helps low-income families through Healthy Start, the workers of tomorrow become better equipped for a challenging future. Every family that gets a (ridiculously paltry) childcare tax credit is a family that can better afford to work. And every time a government safety or health rule saves a worker from being injured, that person can go to work tomorrow.

But it’s deeper than that as well. Guess who uses our court system, mostly? Businesses, suing other businesses. Without the power to enforce contracts, these arrangements would be enforced at the end of a gun, as in many less tenable economies around the world. A transparent, accountable marketplace is the sine qua non for a productive and stable economy.

And on the other side of the equation, it’s clear that corporations are good at producing stuff, and that a vibrant business economy is good for workers and companies. But there’s also a lot that’s wrong with the way corporate incentives are currently structured. This should be a much bigger part of the debate about the contributions of the so-called “job creators.”

Due to our shareholder incentive structure and a lack of meaningful rules for corporate charters, a corporation’s current job is to squeeze a dollar until it hurts (somebody else). This drive towards the bottom line often produces great suffering for workers, especially low-income workers in punishing, poorly regulated jobs like those in slaughterhouses or on farms.

There’s widespread financial predation as well – the Department of Justice and Attorneys’ General landmark settlement against the banks earlier this summer, though enormous, was the tip of the iceberg compared to the devastation in the housing market from no-document loans, robo-signing and other schemes, and from a derivatives economy that was – and is still – structured to produce careless profit-taking by Wall Street.

And of course there’s environmental harm – the “externalities” that businesses wish we would just clean up instead of them. And sometimes they dirty it up on purpose. In the case of chemical flame retardants, for example, the industry basically invented a need and poisoned every living room and public space in America with cancer-causing toxins, just to sell more pounds of their stuff.

Then there’s the corporate capture of lawmakers through campaign contributions, which puts decisions by government in hoc to the wealthy. The big dollars flow to the committee chairs who preside over issues of interest to companies: most of the same Republicans who mouth off against big government apparently see no problem when these companies attempt to purchase that government for a price.

My point isn’t that corporations are evil. They are structured to be profit-maximizing. But the equation of that with the high moral ground is puzzling, given the dubious mix of activities in which companies often engage. And what often gets lost in the debate about government funding versus corporate freedom is the hypocrisy: corporations readily exploit government money, lands and resources whenever they can, while criticizing any attempt to balance their often-rapacious activities with the common good.

Yet corporations, more than almost anything actually, are mere creatures of the state and governing law. The tax incentives that reward debt and leverage, and the policies that are keeping borrowed money cheap basically forever? Those are government policies, of course. The outrageous, anti-American and anti-middle class policy that capital gains are taxed lower than income? Government again. A system of tax loopholes so porous that the top 10 most profitable U.S. companies paid an average federal tax rate of just 9 percent last year? We built that too.

I don’t really expect that most businesses will have much of a social conscience, because we (unfortunately) haven’t asked them to, by and large. And most people are just doing what it takes to get by, within the rules they were handed. But if you want to claim a kind of moral superiority, well, then forgive me for asking a few questions about how you came by that dollar. If you did it on the backs of workers, through fraud and predation, or by poisoning people or the planet, um, not so much.

And if you chose the private equity route – leveraging companies, gutting assets like workers’ pension funds, and often driving them out of business and pocketing the barely taxed proceeds, then I’m sorry, smug and superior are off the table for you. In fact, you have some explaining to do.

The posturing about the specialness of corporate-earned wealth comes from politicians’ clubby intimacy with the uber-class of the one-percenters – political donors, Wall Street barons, and ultra-rich. And Romney’s comments make clear not just his “incompetence,” but the narrowness of his version of who is righteous in America, and who is not.

In contrast, old-timey conservatives used to routinely acknowledge a role for even strong government in creating the rules and social conditions for businesses to thrive. But this new-fangled GOP doesn’t want to talk about grounding a strong economy in transparency and accountability — they seem only to know a particularly mean-spirited version of us versus them. As Clinton pointed out, this inability to compromise or see the whole picture makes for broken politics and political decision-making.

So we have to fix it. We should use this moment to call into question the thoughtless sanctimony of the discourse around the value of the corporation. We created these things, and if they really are “people,” then the least we can do is require them to act like decent citizens.

Show me a business that cleans up after itself, treats its workers fairly, gives back to the community, is transparent and accountable in its dealings, and creates a well-made, environmentally sound product, and I’ll happily nominate its owners for the moral high ground. Or for political office, because we need more folks with backbone in those jobs.

If that’s not you, though, please step down off that soapbox — …slowly…slowly... — and do try to keep a lid on it about how much mooching the rest of us really do.