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McFate, Wiley, LeRoy and Barrett: Renewing Democracy Through Transparency

The excitement of government transparency has lost its shimmer, but a new mapping tool seeks to bring back the glow by making economic stimulus projects visible and demonstrating better ways to track all federal spending.

On day one of his administration, President Barack Obama promised that his administration would be “the most open and transparent in history.” In short order, a chief information officer was hired to bring Uncle Sam into the Internet age. There was a new focus on posting usable information online. Each federal agency developed its own open-government plan.

The early flagship of these efforts was the stimulus. When the White House created the Recovery.gov website in early 2009 and pledged to post information about its flow of funds, Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board Chairman Earl Devaney promised that the website would “unleash a million citizen Inspectors General.” The extremely low rate of fraud in the stimulus is a tribute to the effectiveness of Devaney’s plan.

But as the early White House appointees moved on or were reposted to other positions, the idea that public information needs to be available to encourage more citizen engagement and oversight of government seems to have been lost. The second wave of open-government advocates in the administration seems more concerned with consumer aspects of public data — especially the commercial aspects of harvesting public data sets and repackaging them for profit — than with improving transparency to empower citizens.

In this election year, the failure to sustain a focus on accountability and citizen empowerment (especially of groups most hurt by the downturn) is an opportunity missed. Americans feel their political system is rigged to support special interests. Favorability ratings for Congress are at historic lows. Budget deficits require extra scrutiny of every dollar spent. Lingering high unemployment — especially in urban and minority communities — leads to people asking how federal spending is helping them.

Enter the Equity in Government Accountability and Performance project, created by four nonprofit groups to mesh federal spending data with census data to help educate the public about how government operates and to encourage more informed debates at the federal, state and local levels about meeting Americans’ needs.

A Web-based project of OMB Watch, the Center for Social Inclusion, Good Jobs First and Gamaliel’s Transportation Equity Network, EGAP shows how transparency can benefit citizens and encourage more targeted and effective federal spending (and shows more work is needed). EGAP brings together stimulus data (grants, loans and contracts) with the demographic characteristics of the places receiving the funds. It supplies the data in a user-friendly format to individual citizens, community groups, service providers and advocates. It creates maps to let people track the way federal transportation dollars are flowing into their communities. So, for example, spending on public transit can be compared to the number of workers who commute by transit.

By pairing spending data with community need indicators and putting this information in the hands of active citizens, transparency generates more awareness and accountability about the use of federal money. It begins to level the information playing field between public officials and citizens and arms people with the information they need to advocate the programs, services and infrastructure that they believe are essential to the health and well-being of their communities, and it demonstrates the importance of presenting information on federal, state and local public spending in formats people can use and understand.

If we are to have a government we can believe in, we need to know that we can see where our money is going and whether it is effectively targeted. We are betting on a million inspectors general — and we hope the Obama administration is, too.

Katherine McFate is president of OMB Watch. Maya Wiley is president of the Center for Social Inclusion. Greg LeRoy is executive director of Good Jobs First. Laura Barrett is executive director of the Transportation Equity Network.

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