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Rewiring Government

The Department of Better Technology helps governments deliver great digital services to the people who depend on them.

Interview: Alex Howard on engaging citizens with government and making data meaningful

Quote from Alex Howard, excerpted from the transcript below.

In this episode of Rewiring Government, Josh talks to Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation. They discuss how government harnesses technology to regain trust, the surprisingly meaningful impact of nonprofit tax data, and trends in open government and police accountability.

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A transcript of the interview is below, edited for content and flow.

Joshua: Alex Howard, welcome to The Rewiring Government Podcast.

Alex: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Joshua: I want to start with your new gig. You recently joined the Sunlight Foundation and you’ve been, at least in my eyes, one of the longtime observers and commentators for the overlap between government and technology. How did you decide to join the Sunlight Foundation?

Alex: Well, it’s been almost three months now. It seems like it’s gone by in a flash, but we’ve also done a lot and been involved in a lot of things. One of the very satisfying outcomes is being able to continue doing what you just described here from this perch, from this pedestal, from this platform, using our blog and our newsletter, [and] other forms to talk about what we’re seeing, why it matters, and putting it in context. The biggest difference is that, with no reservation whatsoever, now I can say what I think needs to change and how.

I had already gotten to that point in a lot of ways, and I was writing columns, doing what I would describe as advocacy journalism for the past four or five years now. But being at Sunlight takes it one step further. I’ve been enjoying the freedom, autonomy and support to find tensions around transparency, accountability, and open government at large: trying to think deeply about not just what needs to change, but how.

Joshua: There’s this sense we’re close to a natural endpoint of this epoch in government technology that, if you want to draw an artificial border around it, started with the early work of the Obama administration. What’s your high-level view of [this epoch’s] biggest successes? Also, what would you point out to an incoming administration, or folks who continue to work on open government and government technology?

Alex: So, those are two big questions. I think we could separate open government from government tech a little bit. On the government tech side, it’s worth going back to the fall of 2008 and remembering the kinds of things we were saying, and then flipping forward to today to see whether they’ve happened or not. At that point, people realized what was happening in the private sector, with the explosion in social media: Facebook opened up to the whole world, YouTube really came into its own, Twitter became a place that people cared about, Tumblr was already in the mix. Mobile device usage was really starting to take off. The iPhone had 3G access.

In Silicon Valley, people understood the importance of data, of data analysis, data releases. There was a lot of hope for what would happen when the administration released more data. More people recognized the importance of security in networks, devices, and in personal data. People who really watch this carefully were starting to recognize privacy issues around data collection and analysis. I think there was this long-simmering awareness of just how much Internet and device surveillance was going on, but there was no confirmation of it. And then, there was the slow but important march of open source technology into government, for networks, for servers, for the underpinnings of all these web technologies we’re used to. I think that was all there in pockets in government at every level.

And we can quote William Gibson until our faces fall off, right? The future was already there, it just wasn’t equally distributed yet. And I think that’s actually quite true today too. Think about the push, beginning in 2009, to move the federal government to the cloud, or someone else’s server, where they could host it more inexpensively. Here we are in 2016, and that has in fact happened in many places, and in others [they] figured out that maybe it shouldn’t happen. Maybe there’s a private cloud that government should create, and a FedRAMP process where cloud providers get certified.

Now, everyone understands that the future is mobile. There’s still lots of desktop users out in the world, but 92% of the country’s adults have a phone. Two-thirds of those are smart phones. Pretty much whenever someone replaces that feature phone, it’s with a smart phone. If governments don’t have a mobile-friendly site, preferably a responsive site now, they’re behind. In 2016, maybe they’re way behind. Also, because of how the demographics break down for people who choose to have their internet connection be on their phone, they understand that they may not be serving all citizens equally, so there’s much more maturation in terms of thinking mobile first.

And when it comes to data, wow. Almost 200,000 data sets and [on] data.gov, most of them are PDFs or HTML, so good, the data’s up. But [it’s] not so good that it’s still not where maybe people had hoped it would be. There have been some significant data releases, but a number of them had been prompted by lawsuits, not through proactive releases. Once the lawsuits are in, then the agencies release more, but open data as an idea has now spread around the world. Here at Sunlight, we’re working with dozens of cities on their open data policies, with more to come. You’ve seen [open data] laws and regulations passed, and you’ve seen other countries hop on board and try to take it further. The use of [data] analytics is much more advanced in government and obviously, what we know now about privacy and security online is a little bit different too.

Those are the big issues. We can delve into the specific ones too. The high hopes are on getting identity right, and that hasn’t quite worked out as people have hoped. To say that the presidential campaign is being influenced by social media is probably to [understate] how significant it is that one party’s presumptive candidate chooses to tweet most of his statements. You know, we’ve come a long way, and if you [compare 2016 to what we were talking about in] that fall of 2008, it’s satisfying on some fronts and disappointing in others. The open government question is another one entirely.

Joshua: How do you see it from the perspective of the end users of government services? I [define “end users”] in two ways: the citizen consuming public information or interacting with public services, and the civil servant who often doesn’t have the tools to get their job done. Do you see all of these macro-trends we’re talking about trickling down to the front lines?

Alex: Sometimes, yes. There are much better citizen-facing services [than civil-servant-facing ones.] People are now entrusted with building digital services that are simple, robust, mobile friendly, scalable, and organized around people’s needs instead of the structure of government. Code for America has been very helpful in [advocating that] at the state and local level. At the federal level, Jen Pahlka, while she was at the White House, had been good about getting those ideas out there, in terms of what a digital playbook should look like. Certainly, that’s something that the GDS team in the United Kingdom has become globally famous for. And now you have other governments understand the gospel that maybe they don’t need to make enterprise software like they’ve been doing it for the past several decades.

Because of open data, mobile, and the cloud, things can be built differently, and can focus on what people came there to do. There’s still a long way to go in terms of improving the state of play. Part of that is around making it easier for government buyers to choose smaller, more nimble firms using modern technology within existing procurement rules. Or to figure out how to reform those rules to make sure there’s equitable, competitive bids for parts of those contracts. I think modular contracting, and getting more technology expertise into government, are big parts of making that world work better.

The biggest barriers to innovation are boring, but incredibly important things: procurement and human resources. It’s now inevitable that, any time we talk about this kind of thing, people would bring up healthcare.gov and the experiences that millions of people had as a result of [that team’s] design decisions. Making people get a user ID before they’re able to browse plans created an early choke point that made an incredibly bad experience for people. So that was rethought, redesigned, and relaunched.

We don’t hear about issues at healthcare.gov anymore, because there was so much pressure and lots of really great talent brought in to fix it. And yet, you and I both know that there are lots of other healthcare.gov’s being made, or ones that exist right now, that haven’t had the political pressure, expertise, or money brought in to make them better.

There’s no doubt that government needs to build beautiful, simple, scalable, robust, functional, private, secure digital services to retain the public’s trust. The public is now used to having Google, Facebook, Amazon, and all these other tech giants deliver web services that are intuitive, simple, and don’t need training. They do make mistakes, and there are bugs, but the experiences that they’re delivering are so much better than the typical government website. And now there’s a gap with a functional outcome: people trust less in government to deliver upon what a given policy, law, or regulation tells it to do.

Once public trust [in government] has been dealt a blow, you can only win it back through delivery. That’s why I think Mike Bracken’s idea for the UK Government’s Digital Strategy has been taken and used elsewhere. You simply have to deliver something that’s secure, protects people’s privacy, and works wherever people are. That’s what people expect. And so, the question is: How do you align your mission and your resources to deliver on it?

Joshua: That makes me think of how Secretary of Defense Carter has been hanging out a lot in Silicon Valley lately. On the way in here, I read that he had a conversation with Elon Musk about innovation. Elon made a point that’s not particularly controversial: people in large institutions will do whatever is incentivized, and if that involves innovation, they’ll be innovative.

You mentioned two things that I think are big parts of the puzzle of government. One is getting people who understand this stuff inside of government, at the front lines. The other is the really un-sexy stuff around procurement, incentivizing new private sector players to think government is worth working on and worth solving.

I think we’ve done better at the former, bringing in good people from the tech industry, but to really scale that, we need the latter: changing some rules of the road. And we are seeing that a little bit, in cutting down things like [the time and cost of] FedRAMP, the main IT security approval process, from several years and several million dollars, to around six months and [slightly less expensive].

Do you agree with that sentiment?

Alex: That’s a tough question. I think part of it is what you’re trying to do [with this podcast]: connecting people to ideas and one another, people who understand and have worked with government, sharing stories of challenges and failures.

There’s no silver bullet here. It’s going to involve continual pressure at every level of government to do what the external environment is pushing for: doing more with less, spending taxpayer dollars wisely, and adopting modern technologies that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

At the local levels, there’s an increasing pressure for services of every kind to be mobile-friendly, and to [just] work. Mayors don’t have the luxury to ideologically disagree about how big or small government should be, or whether we should have government at all. People want their cities to work for them, they want to know how to get around, and they want to know where services are. They would probably love to be able to do things like register to vote, or renew their license, or reserve a campsite, or check in the status of their filing, or get information about real estate, right from their device.

Usually, technology policy is pretty far down the list of what an average citizen thinks about. The key for people in this space is to make sure government decision-makers understand that technology now underpins any policy. That means you need to have someone at the table from the beginning to talk about what’s possible, how much things cost and how long they’ll take. Thinking effectively on that front isn’t just about what’s ethical or legally permissible, but what is in the best interest of people’s security, their privacy, and their taxpayer dollars. Should they create yet another mobile app, in a time when people are exhausted by new apps, and [only] use five or six on average? Or should they make a mobile website that works for everybody, no matter what device you’re on, that doesn’t have to be continually [updated] with a mobile developer that you may or may not have in house?

I think the answer to that question is straightforward, and has been now for six or seven years. But it’s very hard for anyone in government not to give into “shiny app syndrome”, and say, “Build me an app for that.” Particularly when it seems like in the private sector, everyone’s gone [with] apps. Well, maybe governments shouldn’t. They have different constraints.

More broadly, I think there’s still a huge amount of diversity in opinion around how to move forward in a way that gives everyone a voice in government. Pointing people towards the experiments in direct democracy that are emerging is really important. Modeling public dialogue is really important. Giving people more access to information is core to what we do at Sunlight. I think it’s also important to also make sure that people [understand] where to give feedback to government, and I love to see more people building things that improve government’s capacity to take that feedback and make it meaningful. Right now, it’s easier for people to shout at Congress, their city council, or their state legislators. But we’re not increasing [the government’s] capacity to listen.

Joshua: I want to dive into something that’s been in the news. The IRS released their Form 990 registrations, which nonprofits file [to share] what’s going on in their organization. It’s an interesting example of the link between transparency and service delivery, which I actually think is overlooked in a lot of open government circles. Do you want to give a brief overview of what’s been happening there, and how it’s evolved?

Alex: You’ve nailed it. Form 990 is the name of the form that a nonprofit has to file with the federal government annually. It’s a nonprofit version of the average 1040, and just as in other sectors, they can electronically file those returns. At this point, upwards of 60% of them do. Certainly, the biggest foundations in the world do. The IRS then will disclose those filings to the public if you pay for them, under the Freedom of Information Act.

The thing is that if you receive said filings, you’ll get a DVD full of TIFF files. For people who aren’t familiar, that’s an image format. They scan the electronic filings, put them into an image, and then give out that image. This has been going on for many years. As long as there’s electronic filing, this has been their process.

A longtime open government advocate named Carl Malamud, who’ve I’ve now known since 2009, decided that that was not the way that the IRS should be doing it. He saw that there was a problem in the way they’re disclosing this data, and solving it would be in the public interest. You can see his comments online. I just talked with him, and we ran his statement at the Sunlight Foundation blog. He’s trying to get the Obama administration to release electronically filed data as electronic data in an open, machine-readable format, not an image. For people who aren’t familiar with the idea of something being open, this is the difference between working with a table in Excel and a picture of that table. Ideally, it would be in a comma-separated value file, CSV, which makes it very easy to put something into columns and see exactly what’s happening. That’s important because something like 9% of Americans work at a nonprofit. I think it’s a $1.6 trillion sector of our economy.

If you can see over time how nonprofits are actually doing, in terms of what they’re telling the federal government, you can start to see where money is being spent. You can start to have some insight on how well it’s being spent and to what outcomes, which nonprofits paid their boards and their executives how much. You can understand where they’re spending their money in different areas, and get some sense of geographic changes, and lots of other things that might be relevant to their political activity, or lack thereof, or to how well they’re actually accomplishing their mission.

Because of the value of this data, there have been a number of companies, like GuideStar, who have grown up ingesting the data that the IRS gives out, making it searchable, and giving people insight into what nonprofits are doing well and what they aren’t. So, what happened last week is that after Malamud sued the IRS and won, they started releasing electronically filed returns as open data, specifically as XML files on Amazon’s web services. They’re still 40% of filings that are not electronic and those are still getting scanned and released as PDFs, so this is not done yet. It is a representative sample of the biggest foundations and everyone else with files, but it is not everyone. There’s still going to be some room to improve, but it’s heartening to see that the arc of Malamud’s advocacy has resulted in a similar outcome as when he pushed the Security and Exchange Commission to release their EDGAR data way back in the 90’s, showed them how to do it, gave them the server and now that resource continues to be there for the American people. I think this one will be too. We’ll see insight come out of it that will be useful inside and outside of government.

Joshua: We’ve been involved with a process, along with many, many others, called the Multi-State Registration and Filing Portal (MRFP). It’s basically a consortium of 10 states’ Attorneys General, who are saying: “It’s actually a pain in a butt for nonprofits to have to register in every single state they do business. Why don’t we come together and see if we can make a single filing portal that lets nonprofits file in one place?”

One of the barriers in this project was, in fact, getting some of this IRS data. I think that shows there’s a gap between publication and transparency, and what you can do at the front lines for service delivery. [In the MRFP], if [nonprofits] are registering in a way that’s machine-readable and accessible, whether it’s going into the state or the federal system of record, they’re going to register in a format that can be open by default. I’m most excited about [bridging that gap], and hey, this also dramatically reduces the time and effort it takes for nonprofits to do what they need to do, which is to register.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Joshua: That’s a really interesting point you just made: at least from a technological perspective, we’re better at speaking than listening. Do you see technological or organizational trends that government could harness to become better listeners?

Alex: I’m not sure whether we’re better at talking than listening as a society. I think that would be an interesting empirical question. What I can say is that active listening is a very powerful thing. It’s powerful to feel like you’re being heard, and tools from the private sector that are now hosting public dialogue aren’t expressly designed for deliberative democratic dialogues, [or] focused upon coming to consensus. [They’re not] focused upon giving people with diverse views [the opportunity to] encounter and hear each other. [They’re not focused on] other kinds of outcomes that we might see as beneficial to discourse around proposed laws, regulations, rules, ordinances, or any other kind of significant public concern in representative government.

There have been lots of interesting pushes around direct democracy: people thinking through how our existing, agreed-upon methods of governance should be digitally instantiated. But their results (particularly when they’re borne out online) are problematic, particularly around referendums.

This is probably facile, [but] to put it one way, the wiki is a much better model than a Twitter conversation for forming consensus around an idea. I like Twitter. I use it daily, and I’ve tweeted 13,500 times or something like that now. But it’s not expressly designed for having discussions that amplify the agreements, mutual understanding, or empathy within them. That’s intensely important for people who are entrusted with hearing their constituents, and making sure their constituents have an opportunity to meaningfully speak to issues.

We can’t necessarily say the existing models were perfect. Anyone who’s been to a town hall knows that those don’t actually [meet those goals] either. But they’re what we’ve had for thousands of years. The question is: what can we do that’s better, and what are we doing now that’s worse?

If we continue to flood our representative bodies with huge amounts of speech, it puts them in a difficult position to figure out where the signal is. Moderating these discussions come with constitutional implications. Unfortunately, tech companies are now making agreements with governments, like the European Union, for how they’re going to moderate all that speech, and their solution isn’t necessarily focused upon democratic outcomes, but upon removing hate speech and threats of violence.

[And] publishing houses have unfortunately been abandoning those comment sections: they [don’t see them as] valuable, because it’s hard to do them well. You have to have skilled community managers, with moderation tools, to make a community exist in [a comments section.] It’s possible if you invest in it, as anyone who’s been to MetaFilter knows, but if you’ve been a newspaper website comment section or YouTube comments, you also know how ugly it is. [Let alone] the kind of nastiness anonymity affords on a platform like Twitter. [Twitter] is finally grappling with these issues at a much more deep base, because these problems are causing growth and retention issues.

I hope we’re going to see more experimentation and pilot programs around the world at the local, state, and [federal] levels where participatory, democratic software is beta-tested. Some [programs] will fail, and some won’t. Ideally, those will give us all a better say in what’s happening in government. It will give the people more insight based upon whether [data] is disclosed because [of a lawsuit], or because public servants think that the people should be informed. It will give [public servants] insight into public sentiment, helping them see where the evidence lies in certain public policy decisions. And it will provide opportunities to share that insight with people, and help inform them how decisions are made.

This is my optimistic side, and I say that because there’s been a hype cycle around this space that we’re now crushed under the weight of. If you remember in how much hope there was in 2009—2010 that the Internet was going to change everything in government, and democracy was going to be better. Here we are, and things look quite dark in a lot of places. Democracies are not expanding. Free speech is being constrained; journalists are targeted, harassed and killed. Every digital platform has significant privacy and security implications: we know they’re surveilled, and that brings a chilling effect upon discourse. All my optimism has to be balanced with that.

But [at the same time,] there’s never been so much opportunity to make these things better. I’m hoping we’ll find our better selves as more people feel ownership in their government, and invest themselves in making it better. Because it’s ultimately about [the people:] they serve a term in government, or do some service on the local level, or volunteer to improve data sets or the school website, or volunteer to collect data.

One of the most significant global trends is in people using these platforms to hold governments accountable. Many, many citizens carry smartphones connected to the internet, and they can take video and spread it through social media. This is a really powerful accountability mechanism for seeing how well [governments are] doing things, and governments still haven’t adjusted yet. You can see it most clearly in the U.S. at the ground level, around police forces. They’re still arguing that they can’t do their job as well because we’re all watching them and sharing videos, and people are saying, “Well, you’re not doing your job very well. Sometimes you’re doing things which we’re really upset about, for good reason. So this is how we’re going to be a corrective force.”

Now one transparency issue is what happens to cell phone videos from citizens, and what happens to body camera or dashboard camera videos from police officer. Where is it stored, and how is it accessed? How can it be used for evidence, and how can it be disclosed to the public? Are there members of the public who are in the video, or the public at large, or the media? Every city and every state are having their own deliberate discussions around this. In many cases, governments that want to claim they’re very open and want to release lots of data also have police departments who want nothing to do with that. Because it puts them in an uncomfortable place.

Populations that haven’t been policed in ways that [embody] the best we hope and expect [from our police] deserve to have these tools, to make sure we can all see what’s happening to them. [They need to] share their experiences, build empathy, and build the political will to reform criminal justice systems and the technologies that support surveillance, coercion, and outright unconstitutional behaviors.

This is an important trend, and it’s something we’re going to be struggling with for the rest of our lives: thinking through what and how it should be recorded, who gets to [store] video and the [metadata] behind it, and how it should be disclosed and [distributed.] These are the core questions. Everyone who has been studying these spaces knows that, for thousands of years, information has always been power. And it always will be. Who controls [that information] is a matter of great public interest. I’m hopeful that the impact of [that information] upon autocratic and authoritarian states is ultimately going to be destabilizing enough that we’ll see some significant improvements in the [living] conditions of billions of people. In more developed nations, we’re used to being more open, so there just isn’t as much of a effect.

Our police forces are used to being held accountable, and having the media report upon them. They don’t like it, and they want to make themselves unaccountable, by passing laws that exempt their personnel and their actions from freedom of information laws. But there’s an expectation of accountability, of freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. There’s also an expectation that bad behavior is something that should be rooted out. And as a result, I think we’re seeing some significant movements towards reform in western democracies.

In authoritarian states, it’s going to be a different matter all together. Increasing people’s access to [communicate with] one another, and to information from outside those regimes, is significant. The challenge is to do so without exposing people in these police states to intimidation, imprisonment, or murder, which these tools enable with [mass surveillance.] These people need other options to organizing protests in the open and on Twitter.

Joshua: Before we go, I want to talk about open government. We’ve both followed, written about, and engaged with this space for a very long time. How would you characterize the state of the movement right now? What are some of the wins we’ve made? What are our remaining challenges?

Alex: I think the idea itself is interesting to me: that a government should be open and accountable to the people. That idea goes back to Enlightenment philosophers, the same folks that our founding fathers in the United States were reading when they put together our system. There’s a lot in [those original ideas] that can be carried through to this moment, in terms of how different states are trying to exempt themselves or regress against that ideal.

There’s always tension between transparency and privacy, between accountability and secrecy, between government and the consent of the governed. Elected representatives make decisions that they think are the best interest of the people, and when there’s a gap between the will of the people as expressed to representatives, and what those in power are doing on our behalf, [our representatives] try to shield [those decisions] from public scrutiny.

Whenever there’s a decision that, when it’s disclosed, is deeply unpopular, and there’s that gap in understanding, you see widespread upset. Well, here we are in 2016, and the “open-ness movement”, if you will, is going through some intense self—examination in terms of what’s been done that’s made a difference. How have these data releases had an impact upon our communities, upon our businesses, upon our nonprofits, upon how government runs itself? Have we passed laws and regulations that “bake in” the wins or the policies that people have asked for? Have we improved [upon] the core ideas of good government that go back centuries, [like] free and fair elections, independent judiciaries with equal access to justice, the ability for people to read the laws that affect them and to be represented, the ability to access and request records and get a full and fair account? Are we giving people insight into the legislative process, and access to legislators? To what extent is technology enabling those kinds of ideas?

We can point to lots of startups attempting do this. Some have had success. Lots of others still exist, but aren’t doing as much. There’s a whole crop of new efforts now that are doing something different. You’re part of one of them right now. If you look at OpenGov, Inc., a venture-backed firm, they’re putting financial data online into a cloud of their own. If you look at Brigade, they’re just trying to do citizen engagement around electoral ideas… who knows whether that’s ultimately going to work out? Then there are any number of players all around the world, [including] individual countries.

And now there’s the really fascinating dynamic of collaboration between many newsrooms across many countries, doing distributed reporting on corruption and secrecy. The Panama Papers broke recently: I think that had 100 different news organizations reporting on an unprecedentedly big trove of data. But that distributed model is something that had already been [developed] with Swiss Leaks, the reporting on WikiLeaks data. That’s a important core accountability mechanism that has now been developed to the extent that national governments are held accountable by journalists working around the world at the same time, in secret, and then publishing their insights. That’s a good thing: the discussion around opening government data has also matured.

It still has a long way to go. I don’t think the idea [of open government] itself is ever going to catch the public’s imagination, so we need to make sure it’s tied to issues that the public does care about: to the economy and jobs, to foreign policy. And to corruption in government, which is frankly a much bigger deal in other countries than people in the United States realize.

The technologies that we have discussed help people fight [government corruption]. We should be very excited about that. There are some studies where, say, moving the payment of government workers or contractors to electronic forms can reduce corruption by shocking amounts. Logging people’s entrance to schools or government bureaucracies can reduce absenteeism by shocking amounts. But if you expose contracting and procurement to more open and participatory processes, and electronically create marketplaces, you can reduce corruption in that process by a shocking amount. In extractive industries focused on oil and gas, huge numbers of crooks take the people’s natural resources and sell it elsewhere. Capturing those processes and the data around them electronically, and releasing that data to the public, is an opportunity to make sure some of that money ends up where it’s supposed to.

As we speak, it is worth noting that Venezuela, which has some of the world’s greatest oil reserves, which has made well over $1 trillion from selling its oil over the last decade, is currently in public tumult. There are riots because they have become unable to grow enough food for the people there, and yet they have all this money. What’s happened there? The more we focus on corruption as something to be battered and disrupted through innovation, through creating more accountable systems, the better off we are.

For [businesses] in this space focused on getting their buck from government, if their app or service is better than existing processes, then we benefit from that. But a lot of the more edgy hopes and dreams, around social media, around releasing data, around mobile apps, have [struggled with] incredibly upset publics in countries with understandably low trust in their institutions. [These institutions] are unwilling, or unable, to grapple with systemic and societal changes brought on by changes in climate, the economy, trade policy, job opportunities, religion, culture, and war.

All of these [changes] have led us to this historic moment, where we can see more about what governments are doing than we’ve ever been able to. But where these governments may claim openness by releasing performance or service data, they are in fact reducing the actual levels of accountability and transparency because they crack down on press. In Mexico and other places, this happens in clear or [more subtle] ways: describing to [journalists] what they can’t report, denying requests, or outright threatening or enabling the murder of someone reporting on a crime.

It’s indisputable that there’s been progress in our community, but it’s largely unknown because these aren’t things that are always easy to explain to the public. There isn’t this obvious outcome to their lives. [For example,] releasing data on Medicare and Medicaid is significant, but unless you can bring that home to improve these services, reduce their costs and the amount of obstruction (if it exists), then it’s difficult to say that [those releases] mattered.

That’s one of the big lessons that anyone in this space needs to be grappling with. How do you make sure what you’re working on is tied to [things] people care about? And how do you then find data that helps you [accomplish those things,] versus someone saying “Here’s a new data set. [It’s up to you] to do something with that?”

Joshua: I feel like there are many more options for someone who wants to make an impact in this space that are both scalable and measurable. Whether that’s through a start-up [like DOBT], a nonprofit, releasing data or implementing laws, tying those to service delivery is very encouraging to me, despite all the challenges that you mention and are definitely still out there.

Alex Howard, thank you so much for joining us. This has been really fun.

Where can people find more about you?

Alex: You can Google “Alex Howard”. The other Alex Howards of the world are probably not thrilled with me because I fill up a lot of space. You can check out sunlightfoundation.com and I have a profile right there. I mentioned Twitter earlier: I tweet somewhat frequently @digiphile. Anyone can write to me and ask questions at ahoward@sunlightfoundation.com.

And there are numerous, mostly accurate biographies of me online, if you really care about that kind of thing, but I’m pretty reachable through those mechanisms, and hope to meet people here in DC if you ever want to come visit.

Joshua: Great, thanks again.

Alex: Thank you.

Joshua Goldstein is the VP of Product at CityBase.

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