It’s primary election day, and I have no idea what’s going on

I’ll put the moral of this story up front: data is nice, but the problem is the media.

Today is the primary election in Pennsylvania, and I intend to go over to vote in a few minutes. But it occurred to me only this morning that more things may be on the ballot than the presidential nominees. To be a good citizen, I realized I had better read up on what else I will be voting on before strolling across the street to cast my ballot.

So what else is on the ballot? I figured the PA state website might have that information. Hah. I should only be so lucky. Googling I found CNN’s page only has presidential information; I found an AP article that mentions other candidates; and eventually some five pages of Google hits later I find that the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania seem to be the only group that has put this information online. Thanks to the LWV!

Fortunately some of the ballots are easy. The primary for the House and State Senate are uncontested in each party, and it looks like only one party even has a candidate for State House. (Lucky us.) I’m supposed to vote for state attorney general, auditor general, and treasurer. Each party has one candidate for the first two— another easy “choice.” (I presume these are all primaries and not actual elections for these offices, but the page doesn’t say.)

Then as I look down I find myself completely baffled. I’m supposed to elect pledged delegates to my party’s national convention?? Exactly what am I doing when I vote for either Clinton or Obama if I also have to choose delegates? (Ok, I just read an article in the Philly Inquirer explaining it.)

So I tell you, it’s just ridiculous that I don’t already know this information, and that there is no comprehensive explanation of what is going on on the ballot (although the LWV come close).

Public policy with input from the public

Last night I attended an Obama campaign tech-policy panel discussion here at Penn. Unfortunately the consensus among me and my CITP friends who attended was that the event was almost completely uninformative on tech issues. One thing I did learn was that the Obama campaign is making use of some 1500 experts in the public to draft policy. That’s a refreshing idea. In the OHP report, I wrote the last chapter urging Congress to bring the public into their decision making process about using technology for transparency. In January, at dinner during the CITP’s cloud workshop, John Wonderlich and I and others were talking and a (to them crazy, to me interesting) idea came out about creating shadow congressional committees filled with experts/delegates from the public, rather than politicians.

Apparently this failure to reach out to experts and the public extends to the executive branch as well. Says an anonymous (but knowledgeable) writer, “it is widely-accepted that the federal government’s attempt to use the internet for regulations commenting ( has been a failure.”

This seems to me to underlie some of the larger problems we face. The distrust of politicians created by, for instance, pay-for-access is about the fact that politicians aren’t turning to the right experts for advice. When Ted Stevens is mocked for his understanding of the Internet (though I say that a series of tubes is remarkably accurate), it’s because he clearly failed to talk to an expert.

There’s a structural problem here. Why don’t decision makers seek public input? What can we do in the public to make talking to us more appealing?

Transparency on a platter

Could it be any easier for Congress to enact some pretty ideal transparency legislation now? Last year I lamented on how the ethics reform bill (that Obama now touts as one of his best achievements) was a laundry list of updates to existing rules with only a few actual nuggets of real transparency reform. Well, if they want real reform, Sunlight is serving it to them on a platter at, as John noted last post. Modulo a few small modifications that have been suggested, there is really no reason anyone should oppose the bill. (IIRC and IMO, the most controversial section is about making CRS reports publicly available. I personally don’t feel so strongly about that section and can see why some would oppose it.)

While we were drafting the Open House Project report a year ago, it seemed like a good next step would be to just write the legislation that would achieve what we wanted changed — and see if we could get it introduced like other advocacy and industry groups seem to be able to do. I’m glad Sunlight took the time to formulate those recommendations (and more) into their proposed bill.

One of the most interesting sections in Sunlight’s bill is the incorporation of the 8 Principles of Open Government Data ( drafted at a conference in December. Rather than including in each provision or specifying explicitly how data should be made available (although some provisions are explicit, inconsistently), the bill would require the GAO to annually assess the implementations of each provision of the bill according to the principles (section 901). It’s an interesting choice to put the principles in an assessment rather than a requirement (and thinking back, I can remember this type of idea coming up in some of John’s posts). An assessment can keep up with the times, and can place ongoing pressure after initial compliance has been reached. It does seem to allow new data to avoid the principles, though. Could the principles be both mandated and audited? Are the principles specific enough to mandate? (Could we make them specific enough?)