Accountability and the top-down nature of open data

I just left a talk by Aneesh Chopra at the National Civic Summit, talking about open government.

One of the examples he talked about was the opening up of federal IT budget data, and specifically Veterans Affairs. The VA CIO gave the organization mostly failing grades on its initiatives — which is to say, they know they need dramatic improvement. The CIO was also making himself accountable to improving the situation.

First: Aneesh talked a lot about being accountable to the public. What does that mean? Should the public storm the VA offices with pitchforks and torches if something isn’t done about this IT situation? Of all the people the CIO is accountable to, the public isn’t one of them. These cliche declarations of fealty to the public aren’t accurate, nor is the public clamoring to have direct control over these appointed positions. A little more honesty and a little less flare would be appreciated. The problem is also more general: most of the time people talk about being “accountable to the public” it’s entirely unclear where or how that accountability would take place. The ballot box isn’t it.

But the other thing that struck me is that currently “open data” is still hierarchically controlled. The CIO is giving these grades, and all data goes through the hierarchy of a department before being published. The CIO’s plan sounds good, but I know that IT project failure doesn’t have simple cause. Maybe the requirements were overambitious or uninformed by details on the ground. Maybe implementation was poor. Maybe third party vendors oversold their capabilities. Maybe project management was optimistic. Maybe project managers were coerced into giving inaccurate estimates. If the hierarchy fails, is the hierarchy well equiped to be transparent about the reasons?

Another concern about the filtered nature of open data initiatives is that we don’t know what data we want. What’s data is interesting? What data is peculiar, what deserves investigation? What data do they even have? On the outside we don’t even know what to ask for. I am sure there are people on the inside who get hunches about what is interesting, about what they’d like to see people get their hands on. I suspect those people aren’t in a position to make that data public. A well-administered department might facilitate that kind of proactive transparency, it might include people at all levels. Might. But I’d rather see it built in.