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Watchdog: Cato Institute's Jim Harper is on a quest as a digital Diogenes

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies with the Cato Institute, speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on consumer online privacy in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, July 27, 2010. Internet companies should simplify their privacy policies and give computer users more power to limit the sharing of their person information, senators said. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Jim Harper

Jim Harper may be the digital era's version of Diogenes the Cynic.

In a manner reminiscent of the ancient contrarian, the Cato Institute's director of information policy studies walks around town figuratively carrying a lamp while searching for honesty.

‘The raw data, on the other hand, can be put to hundreds of uses that cumulatively produce better public (and internal!) oversight. --- Cato Institute's Jim Harper’

Unlike the old Greek philosopher, however, who was looking for a mere man, Harper is looking for the "distinct identifier" that can unlock the many mysteries of federal spending and documents. There are many folks in this town who would say Diogenes was more likely to succeed in his quest than Harper is in his today.

The "unique identifier" is a digital characteristic that would be given to every federal spending document so that it could be accessed by anybody seeking information about what happened to the trillions of tax and borrowed dollars spent each year by the federal government.

The lack of such a characteristic shared among the mega-zillions of bytes contained in thousands of federal databases is the biggest obstacle to making Washington's spending genuinely transparent and accessible. Here's how Harper explained it for The Washington Examiner:

"When Congress and the president hurriedly passed the Economic Recovery Act of 2009, they did something right by creating the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. If there is going to be hurried "fiscal cliff" legislation, how about a similar requirement to make the entire government more transparent using distinct identifiers for every federal entity and every outlay of federal funds?"

The problem is, according to Harper, the fact that "believe it or not, there isn't a machine-readable federal government organization chart to help Americans do computer-aided oversight. There's no identifiable link between the checks the government cuts, and the obligations, projects, and programs they're related to. President Obama can make great transparency strides in this area."

Harper is determined to see this problem remedied, and Obama would seem to be a logical candidate for the contemporary politician most able to make such a solution happen.

As a senator from Illinois prior to his successful 2008 presidential campaign, Obama joined forces with Sen. Tom Coburn, the flinty Republican from Oklahoma, in co-sponsoring the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, aka "Coburn-Obama" among residents of Washington's steadily growing community of transparency advocates across the ideological spectrum.

That measure became law when President George W. Bush signed it Sept. 26, 2006. Coburn-Obama directed the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to establish a "Google-like" web-based database of federal spending to put any citizen with an Internet link within a few mouse clicks of being able to view an estimated 70 percent of all federal spending.

Known officially as USASpending.gov, the Coburn-Obama creation was launded by transparency advocates as a milestone in the long march toward bringing the federal government into the digital age of accountability. But, as Harper explains, Coburn-Obama is not without its limitations.

"USASpending.gov is good, but not great. It is rightly criticized for not having clean data. Most importantly, though, it's an interface that controls the way we get access to what data there is," he told the Examiner.

In other words, USASpending.gov only allows access to whatever federal spending the government judges to be appropriate for the public.

That's where Harper's unique identifier enters the picture and why it's something of a Holy Grail among transparency advocates:

"Rather than an interface, we should get the raw data so that people can work with it as they please. Some want to link spending data en masse to campaign contributions.

"Some want to create visualizations of where all the money comes from and where it goes. Links between outlays and congressional appropriations. There are plenty of uses we haven't imagined yet."

Websites like USASpending.gov "will always be, a constraint on access to information. The raw data, on the other hand, can be put to hundreds of uses that cumulatively produce better public (and internal!) oversight," he said.

To put it in Diogenian terms, it's akin to the difference between finding a high-quality, four-color photograph of the honest man and being able to shake his hand, ask lots of questions, and discuss his answers with him.

Or, as Mark Twain might say, it's the difference between "Lightning" and "Lightning Bug."

For now, Harper's focus is on drawing attention to the shortcomings of federal data and document access. Last month, he released his first "transparency grades" for the federal government in 10 areas. Only three of the areas received decent grades, including White House budget documents (B-), Obligations (B-) and Outlays (C-).

The remaining seven areas all received Ds and Fs. Harper plans to update the transparency grades every two years.

Perhaps contrary to the conventional wisdom, the House of Representatives scored a bit higher in Harper's calculations than Obama. In the transparency grade report, he explained:

"Between the Obama administration and House Republicans, the former, starting from a low transparency baseline, made extravagant promises and put significant effort into the project of government transparency. It has not been a success. House Republicans, who manage a far smaller segment of the government, started from a higher transparency baseline, made modest promises, and have taken limited steps to execute those promises."

Harper singled out docs.house.gov and beta.congress.gov as examples of positive work by the House to improve transparency in government. Even there, he describes such efforts as representing "modest success" and "good potential."

And so Harper's lamp will stay lit and the search will go on.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.