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Transparency Roundup Relaunches, the federal effort to track stimulus spending online, just released an update to the site with some interesting new features. The most important feature is the ability to dig into spending data to see how stimulus money is being spent by zip code. A new interactive mapping application is the centerpiece of the site, allowing users to see every project in their neighborhood. Although the site isn’t fully operational yet, as much of the data it will eventually feature won’t be released until October 1, the transparency community has had a generally positive reaction to the relaunch. Sunlight Labs, an organization devoted to improving online government transparency, gives the new site a generally positive review.

“Is it a perfect tool for tracking recovery dollars? No, not really. But the limits of the legacy systems it was built upon made that goal unrealistic from the start – was never going to solve the data quality problems of USASpending, for instance. But it is a step toward making those systems comprehensible, and perhaps setting the stage for improving them – or it can be, at least. So kudos for that.”

Read the Bill — Or Not
Transparency activists have launched an effort to force Congress to release bills 72 Hours before they take a vote on the bill. Conservative activists have jumped on the effort and are pushing hard to make “Read the Bill” their new ralllying cry. The activists are also gathering signatures from members of Congress on their discharge petition, which would allow them to bring their bill to the floor for a vote over the objections of the House Leadership and without passing a committee.

Certainly, most people concerned with government transparency support having members of Congress read the bills they are voting on. However, John Dickerson, writing in Slate, makes the counterintuitive case that reading the bill isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“Think of it like buying a house: I want to buy this house at this price. I make an agreement with the seller. A month later I sit down in a lawyer’s office and go through page after page of legal jargon with someone I trust-not just to have the expertise to explain it to me but to protect me from anything I don’t want in there. I could study real estate law, read the contract, and make my own determination-but I have a job and a family. If there’s a problem with the final language of the contract, my lawyer alerts me and modifications are made (or I back out).”

A Win for Budget Transparency in Delaware
Kilroy’s Delaware brings word of a bill in Delaware to increase the transparency of school budgeting. The legislation requires districts to set up Citizens Budget Oversight Committees and to put their checkbooks online. Although Delaware Governor Jack Markell had already required localities to put checkbooks online via executive order, this new bill adds permanence and keeps any future administration from undoing the requirements.

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Contracting Databases
The Senate’s ad hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight held a hearing on “Improving Transparency and Accessibility of Federal Contracting Databases.” Though only two Senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Bob Bennett of Utah, showed up, the hearing took a valuable look at the ad hoc and confusing system we have for tracking federal contracting. Currently, depending on who’s counting, there are either 8 or 12 different databases of federal contracts. Senators took a look at why the databases are so scattered and at a new General Services Administration plan to overhaul the system.
Ash Institute Recognizes Washington DC’s Leadership in Providing DataFrom the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the District of Columbiawas announced as the winner of their 2009 Innovations in American Government Award in Urban Policy. The DC government spearheaded the first initiative in the country to make almost all data collected by the government available in its raw form to the public. Raw data disclosure is the gold standard in transparency and phenomenal resources like Digital Public Squareand D.C. Data Catalog are the result. For all the talk of transparency and opening up government coming from our current crop of office seekers I have yet to see anyone propose doing anything as significant as this, and that is a shame.  

MappingLegislator Behavior
Texas Watchdog, a news Web site that “scrutinizes the actions of government agencies, bureaucracies and politicians in Texas” has recently released their 2009 Ethics Form Map. It presents a great visual with links to information on each of Texas’ 181 lawmakers. From state ethics forms and campaign contributions to the bills legislators pushed last session this is a great example of taking government data and putting it in a easy to read useful format that increases transparency and accountability. Plus they provide contact information so citizens can easily make legislators aware of their thoughts.

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