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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Obama White House Will Be Test Of Transparency

Turning The White House Into A Glass House Could Prove Harder Than Some Believe, But Rewards Would Run Both Ways

Promising to fight sponsors of pork projects if elected president, John McCain used to tell campaign audiences that "you will know their names, and I will make them famous." Inherent in his pledge was a belief that merely making information public would reduce wasteful earmarks.

If elected, McCain might have gone on TV or radio to talk up offending projects -- as he frequently did during the campaign to ridicule earmarks for a Woodstock museum in New York and a study on "the DNA of bears in Montana" -- or maybe he would have used the presidential pulpit. But ask any geek and they'll agree that no better way exists to liberate information than the Internet.

 

Barack Obama is turning out to be one such geek. In a speech earlier this month outlining his plans for an economic stimulus, he said that "instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made transparently" and "every American will be able to hold Washington accountable for these decisions by going online to see how and where their taxpayer dollars are spent."

If Obama requires all proposed spending to first be posted on the Web, interest groups could be suddenly forced to defend priorities online or turn to the Web as a tool for promoting causes.

Obama's track record on Web transparency started before his presidential campaign. In 2006, he and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act mandating that the government post online all information about federal contracts. The resulting site, USASpending.gov, is modeled after the nonprofit-funded FedSpending.org. That independent project has already been used to conduct more than 10 million searches since its inception two years ago, demonstrating a public appetite for the particulars of contract spending that few might have anticipated.

 

But in his speech this month, Obama promised an "unprecedented effort" to "eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending." Uncertainty about exactly how Obama plans to expand his earlier efforts likely makes some people nervous. For every earmark, at least one person somewhere supports it passionately. For every government project, there are beneficiaries willing to lobby in its defense. Plus, whatever Obama decides to do has potential to spread into state governments. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox cited USASpending.gov while pushing for the launch of a database in his state, and he says similar efforts are under way in 20 other states. "How can we ensure the best budget choices are made when only a few top government officials know exactly how billions of tax dollars are being spent?" he asked in a release calling for legislation this year.

For clues on what Obama might do next, look at how the president-elect has defined transparency on Change.gov. First he invited the public to comment on transition team reports, feedback that was eventually delivered to his Cabinet nominees. Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle and others then responded in videos posted on YouTube and Change.gov. Just last week, the site took things a step further and launched a feature called the "Citizen's Briefing Book," inviting Americans to submit their own ideas and vote on which should be priorities.

"Each night the president-elect receives a briefing book, and so we'd like to create a citizen's briefing book where ideas and suggestions coming from you can go directly to him," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, in a YouTube video explaining how the new feature works. Already, transition team members have begun responding to the voting, triggering yet another round of conversation (although some observers have complained that top-rated but uncomfortable questions have been overlooked). Obama's apparent willingness to solicit public opinion -- and then take it seriously -- might lead to even deeper public involvement.

The benefits of more citizen participation would likely run both ways. John Wonderlich, program director for the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, says even small amounts of interaction on the Web have proved useful for members of Congress looking to "get clout" behind their proposals. "If there are a number of bills and theirs is the one that survived a big public grilling," he explained, "then that bill is presumed to be a little bit more powerful or more vetted. So it's a potential source of power."

 

And Republicans such as Grover Norquist, president of Americans For Tax Reform, say they won't mind the additional time for public input. In fact, they're encouraging it.

"I've worked with the Republicans on the Hill to urge them to say, 'Before you ask us what you think of your trillion-dollar spending bill, put it on the Web for 10 days,'" Norquist said. He complains that lack of transparency leads to poor legislation. "That's what [President] Bush did to us this summer: 'I have this important thing over here, you have to vote for it, it's called a bailout package.' Well, we don't know what it is until we see it."

If Obama requires all proposed spending to first be posted on the Web -- letting Americans peruse it, make comments and then rank the best and worst ideas -- it could change the business of lobbying as interest groups are suddenly forced to defend priorities online or turn to the Web as a tool for promoting causes. There's some indication they're already beginning to do so. When Change.gov started its feature called "Open For Questions," in which users voted on questions to ask the administration, sites such as Democrats.com sent e-mails to their supporters asking them to vote up particular submissions.

That potential for manipulating the vote is why Internet policy expert Lawrence Lessig warns of "disaster" if online tools are ever used as a replacement for the decisions of elected representatives. "The whole point here is that you've got to know a lot to know whether you ought to be spending $5 million on a bridge across the Susquehanna or $10 million on a dam that changes the direction of the Susquehanna," he said. "Those are complicated questions. And somebody sitting there in between television shows trying to figure out which is more important just doesn't know enough -- just doesn't have the background -- not because they aren't smart enough, but because they just don't have the information."

Alexis Ohanian is one of the founders of the popular site Reddit.com, which launched in 2005 and is used by thousands to rank which news stories appear on the site's home page. Based on what he's seen with Reddit, he said, most Americans won't bother going to a site to rank projects to fund, and of those people who do visit, most won't contribute a vote. What will remain, he hopes, are people who consider themselves informed enough to cast a vote. For his part, Ohanian takes transparency a step further, dreaming of a day when the Internal Revenue Service lets Americans log in to see how their individual tax dollars are being spent and then lets them redirect their money.

You never know. Peter Daou ran online strategy for the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton, witnessing firsthand the emergence of YouTube and social networking between elections. "I don't think any of us are good at predicting what's going to happen with the Internet," Daou said. But he's sure of one thing. "I think the Obama administration is going to lead the way for one reason, which is that -- transparency, Internet, technology -- all of those were important components of his campaign for victory. And so this is an organization that he built around him that is very mindful of these things."

"I don't know how it's going to play out," he said. "But it's going to be the first networked or wired administration."

Vincent Barranco Jr., Kevin Friedl and Theresa Poulson contributed to this report.

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