Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Donald Trump’s Secrecy Problem

Most US presidents that want to shake things up want to open them up too. From Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, those wanting to change the system have championed greater openness, whether by promoting openness in international affairs or rebooting FOI and Open Data. ‘Sunlight’, they would almost always say, ‘is the best disinfectant’. Even LBJ, albeit reluctantly, became the father of the first US FOI law when he sulkily signed the 1966 bill.

This is not to say that they stay open and ‘sunny’. Most radicals go off being open. Some do it quickly, some do it slowly, but go off they almost always do. Woodrow Wilson, for all his promises, introduced the 1917 Espionage Act and hid his severe illness in 1919 from the public for two years (and his wife governed, giving the US a secret female president between 1919-1921). For all his promises, Obama also clamped down hard on leakers. As Sissela Bok put it:

‘How many leaders have come into office determined to work for more open government, only to end by fretting over leaks, seeking new ways to classify documents and questioning the loyalty of outspoken subordinates?’ (Bok 1986, 177).

Donald Trump seems to have skipped the ‘open government’ phase entirely and gone straight to the fretting. Greater transparency is not part of his big 100 day plans. Trump isn’t even transparent about the smaller things presidents are generally open about. In the US candidates and office holders regularly publish their tax returns as a matter of course. Details of Obama’s falling income were on the White House website and you can see Reagan’s, Nixon’s, Truman’s and some of FDR’s on the great Tax History project site. Hillary Clinton’s returns are here and Bernie Sanders’ (possibly incomplete) ones here. Presidents also release medical records. Except, of course, Donald Trump, who released a rather brief statement that his doctor later confessed to have written ‘in a few minutes’.

All these little Trumpian secrets seem rather tame in comparison with ‘Russiagate’ that we see unfolding before our eyes (see this great piece for a detailed analysis and these 7 charts). This week the Senate hearings on Russian interference in the US election began in earnest while Mike Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, looks to go public. Though it isn’t clear what sort of scandal it is or where it may go, it is clear that all this secrecy is damaging the White House. Secrets almost always do three things: create suspicion, leaks and pressure to be open.

Problem one is that secrets makes people suspicious. Trump’s non-release of tax returns, for example, appears odder and odder – even Wikileaks is interested in it. As John Dean said, putting pressure on the FBI is not the behaviour of innocent people. And he should know: he was White House counsel for Richard Nixon 1970 until 1973.

This suspicion was encapsulated in Jeff Sessions’ cover up and non-answers to Congress. If, as defenders asserted after, it was normal to meet the Russian ambassador, why not say it? Why hide it? As Chris Hayes put it ‘there’s this pattern…in which there’s this kind of bizarre disassembling about the basic facts of the matter…do you understand why that reads to people as fishy?’ As the Onion put it, ‘Heartbroken Russian Ambassador Thought Special Meetings with Jeff Sessions Were Very Memorable’.

Problem two is that strident denial and clamping down kickstarts all sorts of informal openness. ‘The ship of state’, as the saying goes, ‘is the only known vessel that leaks from the top’. And Trump’s White House is extraordinarily and spectacularly leaky, as a result of factions, frustration and fear (not because of Trump’s phone). Even the administration’s attempts to clamp down on leaks leak.

Problem three is that secrecy attracts attention and motivates others to force you to be open. Trump’s supposed smokescreens and distractions via Twitter are spectacularly counterproductive. There are currently no less than three Congressional investigations ongoing (Senate intelligence, House intelligence and House oversight) all of whom will search, call witnesses and dig. Even Republicans in Congress, who have accepted his racism, sexism and mocking of the disabled, are beginning to want to know more. There’s also a joint intelligence services probe, run by many of the organisations Trump has outright insulted. On 20 March, the heads of the FBI and CIA, in Congressional hearings, contested Trumps’ wiretapping claims: as one observer put it ‘two months after taking office, Trump has implicitly been branded a fantasist by the heads of America’s largest law enforcement agency and its largest intelligence agency’. These investigations

…guarantee that the Russia cloud will hang over the Trump administration at least until the various investigations are over [this] could take months and possibly years to wrap up. All the while, speculation is likely to be fuelled by more leaks, and more embarrassing testimonies.

The media are pursuing Russia and, in a further echo of Watergate, are keeping the topic on the front pages. Meanwhile a whole host of FOI requests ask about Trump’s conflicts of interest with more than 3000 followers of this Trump FOI Slack channel and at least 184 requests on the requesting site muck rock (perhaps someone should invent a bot like this one).

As I wrote in relation to Theresa May, some politicians are born to be open, some achieve openness by accident and some have openness thrust upon them. The combination of suspicion, leaking and pressure is shining a light on the new president. Russia is now coming to dominate everything Trump does and undermine everything else. Soon there will be an attempt to answer the most dangerous question in politics – why? There may never be a smoking gun, but the glimpses and hints at a truth, and the drip of revelations, are likely to be deep, dangerous and damaging. Even in the very unlikely event there is no gun, just smoke, remember it’s the smoke that normally kills. Trump will regret he wasn’t more open from the start.

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College. His new book The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power is published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter 1 here.


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Alasdair Roberts: Beware attack on openness


Below is an extract from an op-ed by Al Roberts on openness-you can read the full piece here and his research on FOI here

…Still, we should be concerned about these recent criticisms of democracy. That is especially true for people who care about governmental openness. The years between 1990 and 2008 were good for transparency. For example, over 80 countries adopted access to information laws. But the movement for openness rode on the wave of enthusiasm for democracy that followed the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s. After all, how could new democracies succeed if citizens did not have information about the workings of governmental institutions?Now the tide is running in the other direction. In his latest book, Fukuyama suggests that American democracy has become dysfunctional partly because of excesses in transparency. Too much openness, he worries, has undermined the effectiveness and legitimacy of government. Another recent book also challenges the notion that transparency “is an unmitigated good.” American government, says Jason Grumet, “is more open, more transparent, and less functional than ever before.”

Talk like this gives cover to politicians and civil servants who are already inclined to question the value of transparency policies. In the United Kingdom, for example, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to impose new fees for making requests under the Freedom of Information Act that was adopted in 2005. Cameron has complained the law “furs up the arteries of government.” And the Australian government has asked Parliament to eliminate the nation’s office of the Information Commissioner, saying that it will “improve efficiencies” and “further the commitment to smaller government.”

Advocates of openness have to challenge this way of thinking. In fact, transparency policies are not a key cause of democratic malaise. There are more important considerations at work. The pressure on democracies is more intense during economic crises because such crises require a rethinking of conventional wisdom about the role of government in the economy. Hard times also lead to painful arguments about the allocation of economic losses. And social disorder — protests, strikes, even riots — typically flairs up as well.

All of these considerations explain why transparency is actually more important during hard times. Access to information allows the public to participate fully in decisions about the role of government that may have consequences for decades. It enables people to judge whether decisions about bailouts and cutbacks are made fairly. And when things get very rough, it permits people to judge whether police power is exercised with restraint.

We will get through this moment of democratic malaise, as we have before. In the meantime, we should exercise some restraint in making final judgments about the viability of the democratic system. And we should be careful about abandoning policies, like those guaranteeing transparency, that give democracies the capacity to adapt to new conditions and maintain the support of citizens.

Alasdair Roberts is a professor of law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. His latest book is The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent (Cornell University Press).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2014 A9

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Ed’s Real Time Revolution?


Both government and opposition are now speaking of harnessing ‘Big Data’ to create all sorts of ‘real time’ service information for the public. Last week Ed Miliband used his Hugo Young Lecture to match up access to information with wider issues of public accountability. He said:

‘…information on individuals should be owned by and accessible to the individual, not hoarded by the state. That people get access to the information unless there is a very good reason for them not to. As the government has already acknowledged, that must include the right to access your own health records, swiftly and effectively.’

There is nothing startlingly new here. This is the sort of information has been opened up over the last two or three decades by FOI and a whole range of separate pieces of access legislation. However, Ed Miliband said this could go further with new technology, using the example of education:

‘Schools collect huge amounts of information on our kids. The old assumption is that it gets shared with us once or twice a year at a parents’ evening. Many good teachers know that its better if parents shouldn’t have to wait for a parents’ evening to understand how their son or daughter is doing, where things are going well and what more they could do. And new technology makes the sharing of this information much easier.’

He spoke of using systems like the Learning Gateway ‘which provides teachers, pupils and parents real-time information on pupil attainment’.

‘…the Learning Gateway is now used by over 100 schools. And just as with the best private sector companies, we can “track our order”, so too in the public sector we should be able to “track our case”.

Looking at the FAQs on this site it seems to show how parents can track punctuality, attendance and performance virtually in ‘real time’. I can see how this ‘real time’ information could transform services.

What concerns me is which parents would use the system to “track our case”. Would it be the few who are already on the board of governors etc? Like FOI, will it be the few most active and already engaged who use it? And what sort of incentives would it create? It would all depend on what the information was and how it was interpreted, which raises all sorts of uncertainties.

I do think the ‘usual suspects’ criticism of transparency, that the few requesters use it are the same already involved in politics writing letters and attending consultations, is overplayed. As Kevin Dunion points out, the ‘usual suspects’ are also a ‘vanguard’ feeding information to the wider public.

However, in this case, I could well imagine the ‘usual suspect parents’ pushing for harder exams, more tests or earlier school opening. This could lead to all sorts of perverse incentives and nightmare scenarios for pupils themselves- the question of how and if people change if they are monitored is a fascinating one. But the evidence is not clear cut that it is always positive.

As an added thought, Ed Miliband also spoke of extending this sort of approach to every government department.

‘Whether it is an application for a parking permit or when you have been a victim of a crime. If it can be done by one local council, it should be possible in every government department’.

The big question is how this is implemented. A school is not a Council. And it is definitely not the Home Office or Department of Health. Could you imagine trying to implement and publish real time immigration information or waiting lists?