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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What I Told EPA About the Climate Crisis and Parenting

IMG_0753We ask our kids to be responsible. Brave, even. To venture out into the world with a sense that it is theirs — to explore, to learn about, and also to care for.

So today I asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do the same when it comes to developing new standards for carbon emissions for power plants. Working with the incredible Molly Rauch from Moms Clean Air Force, I testified at a public listening session downtown.

Here is what I said:

Good morning. My name is Laura MacCleery and I’m a public interest lawyer and blogger. But I’m here today as the mom of a wonderful three-year-old girl to tell you why the EPA should act for her and the other children here and around the world to quickly issue strong rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.

Forty percent of U.S. emissions – 2.3 billion tons – come from power plants. This rule has tremendous power to address one of the major sources of climate disruption. It is an opportunity not to be wasted. Real leadership from EPA would allow the U.S. to act responsibly to address our role in causing a rapid, incipient change in global temperatures.

We don’t have much time. A study in the journal Nature last month found that by the year 2047 – when my daughter Maya is only 37 years old – Washington, D.C., will have a radically altered climate, in which even the coldest monthly dips will be warmer than over the past 150 years. Oxford researchers recently found the ocean’s rate of acidification is the fastest in 300 million years. An Australian researcher showed that by the time my daughter is middle-aged, large parts of the oceans will have slimy cynobacteria – basically black goop – where coral reefs should be. This is not the world I would like to pass on to my daughter.

I try to be a conscientious parent raising a responsible child. One who picks up after herself, and shares her toys without too many complaints. But I wonder, how will she look at me – how will our children think about any of us – if we don’t do what we can to stop climate change, right now? What will it mean to be human on this altered planet? And how will our children see themselves if we don’t act today: if we don’t do the most we can, using what we know, to curb climate change and to reduce the threat it poses to the systems that sustain our lives?

I’ll be 76 years old in 2047 – assuming I’m still around. Should I just tell Maya, then: sorry, we didn’t think it was worthwhile to even try to save your pleasant weather, or prevent asthma, or help prevent catastrophe to our agriculture, our wildlife and to the millions of people living in the tropics displaced by rising tides and violent weather?

I won’t be able to say we didn’t see it coming. The policy case, the scientific case, even the economic case have all been amply made. So I’m asking the EPA, on behalf of the many parents who couldn’t be here today, to act with real political gumption. To look past industry’s predictable objections and the facile compromises that could weaken a standard.

To make this moment – this rule – transformative, much like the fuel economy standards set in the 1970s that were aggressively front-loaded and ended up weaning the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil for several decades. There is no progress without some disruption, but we are choosing between reform today and catastrophe tomorrow.

Decisive government action in this area would be smart and responsible, but it would also be – and I’ll just say it out loud – an act of love. Your job on this one is clear, and has high stakes. We always tell toddlers to use their words. So here are mine for you: Be bold. Brave. Creative. Visionary. Carpe Diem. Change our lives, and those of our children. Use your words for good.

Basically, I’m saying, make us proud, EPA. Make me proud. Don’t muddle along. Don’t accept half-measures that cut our future short.

Instead, be a super-hero. Get right to work to save this world for my child, and for all the other children who are looking up to us to do the right thing.

Laura at EPA###

My panel partner was terrific — he actually sang his comments in a moving, minor-key ballad on climate disruption. It rocked.

You can weigh in too. There are still sessions this week on November 8th in Chicago and Philadelphia. Here’s how to sign up. There are also instructions at that link about how to submit online written comments if you can’t appear in person.

Please, join me in telling the EPA that it must seize this moment to act to reduce carbon emissions, for our children and our planet. Let them know you’re watching, and you care about this enormous opportunity to do something substantial to help prevent a climate crisis.

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