U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s important April 22 speech on political corruption in New York included an interesting section on transparency websites.
Reinvent Albany has strongly applauded online transparency initiatives in New York State and New York City. This said, we completely with Bharara’s concern that many government transparency sites do not include crucial information that would make them truly potent. For instance, we’d like to see the actual contracts between our state and city governments and businesses and non-profits. We’d also like to see who is actually getting the hundreds of millions in tax credits to unknown businesses, or the full disclosure forms of non-profits that receive billions in government contracts. Much is still missing, but there is a great deal of important information relevant to government spending and political and lobbying spending which is already online. Bharara should have applauded those transparency efforts, even while identifying the additional data that he’d like to see put online.
Excerpt from Preet Bharara’s April 22, 2013 speech.
“One more point on this—the creation of databases and websites which make certain information about government officials public, which seem to promote transparency and are unveiled to great fanfare are a step toward true transparency but by themselves are not enough.
A database that is accessible only by physically going to a city office building to access through an outdated computer portal does not accomplish its intended purpose. (Bharara is referring to the VENDEX system of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Contracts.)
A government website that is so difficult to navigate that it is nearly impossible to piece together any real-life understanding of the information it purports to convey or that offers millions of rows of data but without any context or meaningful ability to conduct analysis is not that much more helpful than keeping the information locked away in a filing cabinet. (Not clear what this is? NYC Open Data? If so he misses the point of open data entirely.)
We should perhaps hold our applause for certain transparency measures until we’ve scrutinized whether they truly reveal anything about the workings or behavior of government and public officials.”