“Open Data” is great but it’s not “Transparency”


It should be clear from our hundreds of blog posts and tweets that we really like open data initiatives, such as Governor Cuomo’s Open NY and NYC’s Open Data Law. But we see open data primarily as a way of improving government services and efficiency, as well as sharing data about people and places. We think it’s a mistake to conflate “open data” and “transparency.” A government can produce a huge amount of open data without being transparent. When open data is mislabeled as “transparency,” it’s usually an attempt by government to take credit for being more transparent than it really is.

“Open data” theoretically includes the universe of all government information, but it is mostly about liberating information about what government knows, for instance: transit schedules, restaurant inspections and crash data. In contrast, “transparency” is more about how government works or what it does. Transparency initiatives encompass election, campaign finance, lobbying and procurement laws and reporting requirements, and publishing the data they produce to ensure the public can see what government does – especially how our government spends our money, who gives money to elected officials, and who gets money from government.

Open Data vs. Transparency

The MTA has been recognized for its far-reaching open data policies, but continues to resist transparency. The MTA has a world-class developer portal with APIs that stream data data to anyone who wants to build a real-time transit app. But, this same agency insists it cannot put out its 650-page Financial Plan in a spreadsheet-readable format because the way it assembles the document is too complicated. The MTA shares what it knows, but not what it does.

This difference between open data and transparency is reflected in the variety of open government and transparency websites we see in New York State and New York City. The state and city comptrollers have sophisticated transparency websites which show details about contracts and payments to vendors.  The city and state campaign finance agencies both publish campaign contributions, and the attorney general has a great site – started by then-AG and now-Governor Cuomo –  which provides a consolidated view of campaign contributions, lobbying expenses, and contracts. The state also has a nifty open budget site and machine-readable budgets, while the city has neither.

In addition to these transparency measures, the city and the state both have open data platforms and nationally-recognized open data initiatives.

State Transparency

But New York’s transparency efforts need to zero on the areas of greatest corruption risk before they start noticeably changing the pay-to-play political culture that federal prosecutors, editorial boards, and the governor’s Moreland Commission have all been shouting about. (Pay-to-play is when wealthy interests give elected officials money, whether legally or not, in exchange for favors.)

The public cannot see many of the favors that the governor and state legislature return to their moneyed interests. For instance, New York State is currently giving out $1.7 billion in business tax credits every year; most of these credits go to an incredibly small number of anonymous people and businesses. (According to the governor’s tax fairness commission, only about 1% of NYS businesses claimed a tax credit.) The two biggest tax credits are for Film/TV production and for Brownfield development:

  • $503m/yr in Brownfield tax credits go to 16 businesses, and 92 individuals not subject to public disclosure.
  • $420m/yr in Film-TV  tax credits go to 36 businesses and 67 individuals not subject to public disclosure.

Or consider the $3.3 billion spent in Memoranda Of Understanding or lump-sum budget expenditures as documented by Citizens Union. These expenditures are not published anywhere, and are exempt from FOIL. They consist mainly of small amounts of aid to localities for infrastructure maintenance or local non-profit social service providers, based on the recommendation of legislators. However, we do not know which legislators recommended the expenditures, nor do we know the process by which they were awarded, or how funds were distributed between legislative districts. In other words, districts represented by politically powerful legislators can receive far more than others, regardless of actual need.

In Sum

We don’t know where elected officials send billions of dollars in public funds, but we do know that keeping these lists secret is a recipe for corruption – most likely “legal corruption” given New York’s extraordinarily lax campaign finance laws. If Governor Cuomo is considering a real push for transparency, like he has for open data, he can start by shining a light on these secretive tax credits and lump sum expenditures.