A Ray of Sunshine

Nudge-meister Cass Sunstein sings the praises of open government and transparency.
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Nudge-meister Cass Sunstein sings the praises of open government and transparency.

One of the favorite open government examples Obama administration officials like to give is the SAVE award, a contest invented last year to make government more interactive not just for the general public, but also for the hundreds of thousands of low-level federal employees who never actually get anywhere near the White House.

The administration invited anyone working for a government agency to submit an idea for saving money and improving efficiency. Some 38,000 suggestions poured in to be included in the fiscal year 2011 budget, and 84,000 people voted online for the best among them. The winner, announced in December, was a Veterans Affairs employee named Nancy Fichtner, who got to tell Obama herself that she thinks VA hospitals should stop throwing away perfectly good inhalers, eye drops and ointments.

When patients are discharged, such leftover bulk medicine is currently thrown out behind them. Fichtner suggests instead giving it to patients to take home, reducing both waste and out-of-pocket expenses for veterans who currently have to go to the pharmacy to buy exactly what's just been trashed at the hospital.

The award illustrates a nexus of open-government tenets: the democratizing power of the Internet, the accountability promoted when average people have a platform to chide government waste and the crowd-sourcing that's possible when government releases information the public can then recycle back to Washington in the form of better ideas.

All of these notions go under the spotlight next week as politicians, nongovernmental and media organizations, and citizen-activists converge to observe Sunshine Week, a national campaign for promoting open government. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), for one, is planning to introduce the Public Online Information Act, a bill that would require all public government-held information be made available on the Web.

The Obama administration has been inviting this conversation since the day it took office.

"Promoting electronic pay stubs, or scheduling Social Security appointments online, or repurposing unused government supplies may not be the most glamorous reforms in our nation's history," Cass Sunstein, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House, told a crowd at the Brookings Institution today, "(but) they're helping people, and they're adding up. They're key to transforming how government works effectively and efficiently."

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.


He points to a number of illustrations of open-government innovation already floating around the Web today (including Fichtner's). Transparency advocates and journalists won a long-fought battle when the administration in October began releasing records from the White House visitor logs, which contain key clues to exactly who — Wall Street bankers? Insurance executives? — has been bending ears inside the executive branch's inner sanctum.

For information technology nerds, the government now has a new IT dashboard that allows the public to track federal investments by agency in IT projects (of which 7 percent are rated as having "significant concerns" with performance).

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, meanwhile, now allows consumers to search online for recalls of products by company, date or hazard (in the first week of March alone, you should be concerned about microwavable heat packs, machetes and boys' hooded sweatshirts).

"In an open government, anecdotes and guesswork, speculation and tales can be replaced with hard evidence," Sunstein said. "That's a big goal of transparency."

But this, of course, is not universally true, as was illustrated on the sidewalk outside the Brookings Institution during Sunstein's talk. Open government advocates shouldn't mistake the Obama administration's enthusiasm for the issue to mean 100 percent of the federal government's business will soon be searchable on Google.

As Sunstein was talking, a half-dozen environmentalists were outside protesting his involvement in a debate over regulating coal ash that has largely been conducted behind closed doors.

As Sunstein conceded, goals for open government likely will run into three conflicting obstacles: the need, in some areas, to protect privacy, national security, and the deliberative process that goes into many decisions the executive branch ultimately makes. When those decisions are announced, they'll undoubtedly go up on the Web, but that doesn't mean we'll learn everything about how they're made.