Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crowdsourcing Government Earmarks...

"Earmarks" are something that you'll hear about in the news every presidential election year. They are also known as "pork barrel spending", referring to wasted money that members of Congress dish out to special interests and projects in their home districts, and often have very little to do with the general welfare of the nation.

The shady business of earmarking is usually conducted behind the scenes in smoke-filled backrooms, but the House and Senate recently required their membership to reveal all earmark requests. This was a great first step in bringing transparency to the process, however problems remain. Earmark information is spread out across Congressional websites, and it exists in many different, often incompatible, formats. Even when the amount of money becomes public, it's usually unclear who had requested it, or why. There is also still no central clearinghouse for Congressional earmark activity.

So, in an effort to shed light on all the secrecy in government spending, Jim Harper from the Cato Institute has turned to crowdsourcing as a solution. As Ars Technica reports, Harper has added a new earmarks feature to his existing Washington Watch website. The idea behind crowdsourcing the project is that ordinary people will voluntarily enter any earmark requests that they have somehow been made aware of into this database, thereby allowing the "crowd" to create a central place for earmark information and, hopefully, keeping members of Congress honest in the process.

The website already displays a map locating all earmark requests that people have entered, and provides additional details about each request such as a brief summary of the project, the exact dollar amount involved, and which Representative is to be held accountable. There's also a cute little feature that lets people vote up or down whether they approve of each particular earmark request, essentially letting the public vote if they think it's wasteful or not.

This is reminiscent of a previous effort by the Treasury Department that displayed a map tracking the spending of all TARP money.

The internet's promise of improved democratization is alive and well. Not only do projects like these rely on greater public participation and call for a more involved citizenry, but it also allows "the crowd" to act as a more effective check on the power of our elected officials. After all, in politics, sunlight is still the greatest disinfectant.


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