My friend of many years, author/thinker/activist Micah Sifry, who is co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident.com, has a new book out on the WikiLeaks affair. It’s not a dig-up-the-dirt-on-Julian-Assange volume. Entitled WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, this book, as Sifry puts it, is “a report from the trenches where a wide array of small-d democracy and transparency activists are hard at work using new tools and methods to open up powerful institutions and make them more accountable, and to situate WikiLeaks in that movement.” In this work, Sifry examines other fronts in the battle for openness.
One telling case study from the book—which was excerpted on TechPresident.com—involves the Obama White House’s effort (that is, promise) to make the stimulus a model of transparent government. Sifry writes:
Two years ago, Barack Obama promised the public that he was going to run government in a more transparent and interactive way. Indeed, at public rallies meant to build public support for the signature initiative of his fledgling administration, the $787 billion “Economic Recovery” stimulus spending program, he told audiences that he would “enlist all of you” to help watchdog the spending. The centerpiece was going to a new dynamic and interactive website, Recovery.gov.
Here’s what actually happened with Recovery.gov. According to a White House insider, during the transition planning, Obama was indeed shown a mock-up of an interactive site that would allow citizens to track all federal spending, not just the stimulus. But that vision was whittled down rather quickly, hobbled by a board made of up of the various agency Inspectors General, all of whom come from the old-school way of doing things. The “clay layer” of government bureaucracy, through which no light travels, was in charge.
At first, Earl Devaney, a former Secret Service agent who was appointed as the inspector general to run the stimulus program’s Recovery and Transparency Accountability Board, seemed to embrace Obama’s stated vision. He promised that the site would invite Americans to be “citizens inspectors general,” helping track whether the money was indeed being used properly. “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors general],” Devaney said in August 2009. “After getting a taste of this, people will not want to go back to the old ways,” he said.
No such thing has happened. First of all, the Recovery.gov site doesn’t really engage the public as “eyes and ears” apart from offering a way for people to report fraud, waste, or abuse via a standard electronic complaint form. In other words, all the real information processing about possible problems with government spending is hidden from the public; people have no way of seeing each other’s complaints or tracking whether something has been addressed. This isn’t “Yelp for Government.” All the real work is done by a sophisticated “Recovery Operations Center” where traditional law enforcement authorities use data-mining tools to uncover potential fraud. In no way has a community of citizen inspectors general been formed, and it’s not surprising that Recovery.gov has had no discernible effect on public trust in Obama.
Recovery.com yielded no revolution in citizen e-oversight of government.
You can read the rest of Sifry’s account of this lost opportunity for government transparency here and find his new book here.