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When government shares data about itself

Hacks of data held by governments about citizens are troubling. But governments providing information online about how they work and spend tax dollars is a good thing.

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    Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta (here testifying on Capitol Hill in June) resigned aftere hackers stole millions of Social Security numbers and took other sensitive information when US government computer systems were compromised.
    AP/Susan Walsh
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A massive and disturbing US government data leak is making news.

Social Security numbers and other personal information about more than 22 million citizens have been hacked from US government databases. The news led to the resignation on Friday of US Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta.

Unintentional leaks of citizen information held in trust by the government are troubling and will spark renewed efforts to understand what happened and prevent a recurrence.

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But at the same time, much progress is being made on the flip side of the issue of government-held data: releasing more, and more-easily-understood, information that citizens have a right to know about how government operates, including what decisions it’s making and how it’s spending their tax dollars.

Transparency in government operations is a key to open and clean government. While the new age of cloud storage can lead to hacks and leaks, it also offers an unprecedented opportunity for citizens to really see how their government runs. This transparency can help governments build a stronger relationship of trust with citizens, and even help the governments themselves root out corruption as they gain a clearer picture of their own operations.

For some time cities and towns have been making budgets available online to citizens. But they’re often in the form of hard-to-understand spreadsheets, with no way to easily access more-detailed information or sort or crunch the numbers in different ways.

Now software offered by companies such as OpenGov are helping local governments make their budgets and spending decisions available to citizens in the form of easy-to-read-and-understand charts that massage the data in new ways and help people gain more perspective.

Progress on openness is penetrating the federal government as well.

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There is no less than a “revolution in how Congress makes information available to the public,” argues Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress, a US grass-roots democracy group, writing on the website of the Sunlight Foundation, itself a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that seeks to make government more transparent.

These new sources of data for citizens are opening up “new ways to communicate with Congress, analyze information and make government more efficient and effective,” he says.

More improvement at the federal level will be coming because of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, passed in the previous Congress. Even before that, the $840 billion economic stimulus funding authorized in 2009 required transparency in its spending, which became “institutionalized in some states,” Mr. Schuman says, including monitoring federal contracts, grants, and loans as they were put to use by state agencies.

Congress has made its internal workings more transparent, too. The US House now requires that as much information as possible about legislation be made available to the public online. All bills and amendments being considered are placed online.

At the local level, the OpenGov online accounting tool is already being used by more than 350 governments. Open government software makes it easier for citizens to find out, for example, how a library spends its money, what equipment a police department is buying, and what city employees are being paid.

Government makes two data pacts with citizens: It must safeguard the personal information on citizens that it collects. But it also must make its own workings as public as possible.

As American governments are struggling with the first task, they’re making encouraging progress on the second.

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