Government 2.0

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Sunlight Foundation taking heat for critique

One of the most forceful critiques delivered at the Gov 2.0 Summit last week was from Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, who ripped for alleged gross inaccuracies in its data.

Aggregated data on “is almost completely useless,” Miller said at the Sept. 7 conference sponsored by O’Reilly Media and UBM TechWeb. “We found over $1.3 trillion in broken reporting in 2009 alone, and that is more than half of the spending for that year.”

Now it is Sunlight’s turn to be in the spotlight. A prominent blogger says the foundation is counterproductive in demanding transparency from federal agencies and then, when data is made transparent, demanding that the data be nearly error-free.

“This is exactly how to prevent innovation in government. If you want change, you have to tolerate imperfection and risk,” Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat’s public-sector group, wrote in his Sept. 9 blog entry.

“Sunlight has, I think, dangerously conflated transparency for reform,” Hellekson continued. “You get transparency first and that compels reform. That’s the whole point. You don’t ask for perfection right out of the gate; it’s unreasonable.”

Responding to Hellekson’s blog comment, Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, which is affiliated with the Sunlight Foundation, wrote in a Sept. 10 blog entry that he agreed that there are risks to criticizing imperfect data, as the Sunlight Foundation did with its Clearspending project assessment of But he claims that’s gross inaccuracies demands a stern look.

“What about a data set where 70 percent of the totals are flawed, as is the case with the data Clearspending examined?” Lee wrote. “If we put that data online, we're going to lead people toward incorrect answers. Frankly, I'm worried about what happens when people start asking what concrete things the open government movement has accomplished. We need to make sure that the answer isn't ‘accidentally misleading a lot of people.’ "

Lee also noted that his staff has discussed the data problems with many competent executives and staff members at the Office of Management and Budget who appear committed to solutions. “But when we discussed getting the affected federal spending systems fixed, they started talking in terms of decades. That's code for 'never,'" he added.

The Sunlight Foundation and others involved in this debate are performing a public service for shining some light into this particular corner. The price, and the value, of open government has not yet been calculated, but this is a start.

So who’s right? Is it reasonable to expect that transparency ought to lead fairly quickly to accuracy? Who’s at fault for inaccuracies in federal data that apparently have existed for many years? How much would need to be spent to ensure accurate federal data?

We welcome your opinions on this.


Posted by Alice Lipowicz on Sep 13, 2010 at 7:25 PM

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