Roger L. Simon

The New PJM 'Transparency Project': Questions for Our Readers

As you no doubt know, transparency—openness in government, really—has become the new watchword in our political culture. Beneath the headline “Transparency and Open Government,” President Obama promised his administration would have an “unprecedented level of openness.”

How did that turn out?

In his role as the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is now preparing what might be called the Mother of All Transparency Investigations, having branded the Obama administration, with some justification, “one of the most corrupt.” (As I write, the Bloomberg news agency is reporting Treasury Secretary Geithner’s aides—who helped engineer the $700 billion bank rescue—reaped millions working for banks and hedge funds.Issa claims his investigation could save $200 billion for taxpayers. Who knows if that’s accurate? But more important even than the savings is the principle of transparency in government without which few, if any, savings are possible, ever. For that Issa must be applauded.

Toward this end, Pajamas Media has been working in the background on a small initiative of our own we refer to as “The Transparency Project.” The emphasis is on the small because a tiny company like ours cannot hope to examine more than a few areas in the vast and almost endless sea of our government.

Which is why I am writing this. I have some questions for our audience.

First, which areas of government would you like us to focus on?

We cannot promise we will follow exactly what you wish, but as a company that grew from the blogosphere, we can assure you we respect the wisdom of crowds. And in the case of government transparency, the wisdom of crowds is not only useful—it’s necessary. There is simply too much material for any company or group to handle. We need the expertise of our PJM readers and PJTV viewers.

More specifically, almost everyone seems to be concerned with government spending and the bidding, payments, etc. that flows through that. We have heard recommendations that all government transaction should be available online in real time. But where do we begin? What should we ask for? How should this be presented and what are the best targets for investigation? (The latest information on Issa’s investigations is here.)

Some of these questions have been answered on LegiStorm, a website looking into government transparency that I highly recommend. They even disclose congressional staff salaries. But, unless I missed it, there is nothing on the salaries of the myriad Presidential Czars and their staffs. Perhaps that is something someone in our readership can look into–or can recommend other sources.

Secondarily, what should be the actual limits on government transparency in general? Do we need to know everything? Most of us pay lip service to not jeopardizing national security, but what does that mean in this instance?

One of the outgrowths of the WikiLeaks scandal was that—despite the reprehensible, self-serving and possibly felonious behavior of its leader Julian Assange—much of what was revealed proved to be banal and predictable. Ironically, WikiLeaks may have shown that perhaps we can err on the side of transparency.

On the other hand, to draw on another recent example, few of us would like to see revealed the source of the Stuxnet virus that appears to have set back the Iran nuclear weapons programs. But that is an extreme and an obvious case.

It may finally be that the definition of what constitutes a national security violation resembles Louis Armstong’s famous definition of jazz—“Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” But you may feel differently. Perhaps there are guidelines to draw—and they will no doubt intersect with the area of government payments.

Yes, although we are a small company, we are thinking big here because transparency is a big subject. It could change the way we do business in this country in almost all aspects of government. (One aspect we can promise you we will focus on—because we have been there before—is transparency in the Department of Justice.)

Consider this all an adventure—and an experiment. And we hope you will all join us in it. Feel free to bombard us with your suggestions. We’re listening.

UPDATE: The Sunlight Foundation has responded with this excellent list of recommendations.