Privatization advocates led Obama transportation review effort
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 31, 2009 at 11:21 EST

The privatization of transportation infrastructure was supposed to be a Bush administration goal, but based on my (LittleSis-powered) review of Obama’s transition team, it is a major priority of the new administration, as well.

All three of the Obama transition team leads charged with reviewing the Department of Transportation are privatization advocates. Not only that, but their private sector activities suggest that they stand to profit substantially from further privatization of the nation’s transportation infrastructure (highways, bridges, tunnels, and so on).

On Thursday I profiled Mort Downey, a well-regarded transportation expert, as a “quiet name” – an influential decisionmaker who operates behind the scenes, out of the public spotlight. Downey’s work in the for-profit world – as president and now chairman of PB Consult, a division of engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff – has established him as a cheerleader for infrastructure privatization. His decades of work in the public sector give him that much more cred as an industry spokesperson.

The two other leads on the DoT review team were Jane Garvey, former FAA chief, and Michael Huerta, a former DoT official.

As of last May, Garvey is head of public-private partnerships (aphorism for infrastructure privatization) at JP Morgan. The hire garnered quite a bit of press attention, including a writeup in DealBook, the New York Times’ Wall Street blog, which observed: “it marks only the latest high-profile hire amid sharply climbing interest in infrastructure investing, which involves toll roads, airports and the like.”

From the internal memo announcing Garvey’s arrival, published on DealBook:

Today is an exciting day for JPMorgan’s Infrastructure Advisory Group. In addition to our advisory and financing role on the $12.8 billion Pennsylvania Turnpike concession, I’m pleased to announce that Jane Garvey has joined JPMorgan’s as head of U.S. Public Private Partnerships in Transportation, reporting to me. In this role, Jane will advise clients in the transportation sector on how traditional infrastructure financing methods can be improved to facilitate much needed project delivery for governments. As federal funding disappears and state and local fiscal positions weaken, public private partnerships are increasingly used as a tool for delivering much needed projects.

Nowadays, many economists believe that the government needs to make significant investments in infrastructure in order to get the economy back on track. Wall Street, on the other hand, clearly has a lot riding on the continued erosion of federal funding for infrastructure.

So it would be no suprise if people like Garvey, who has been purchased captured hired by a Wall Street bank, opposed funding increases for infrastructure, whether it be part of the stimulus package or the upcoming transportation bill. She stands to gain lots of money, probably millions, as infrastructure privatization continues. Why should we believe that she’s working for the public interest, and not Wall Street interests/gross self-interest?

Michael Huerta, the third and final team lead on Obama’s DoT review, is another very well-respected transportation expert with loads of public sector experience. But like Downey and Garvey, his most recent work has been in the private sector, for ACS, a Fortune 500 company that specializes in business process outsourcing.

The division Huerta heads up, ACS Transportation Solutions, is a member of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, like Downey’s PB Consult. When a state or local government outsources the management of a toll road, Huerta’s ACS often steps in. It’s not hard to imagine that Huerta stands to gain substantially from privatization. But we don’t have to imagine it. He says so right here, in this ACS investor call from May 15, 2008 (not available online, published on the Voxant FD Wire):

So what is driving our past growth in the future? Well, you are seeing a lot more privatization here in the U.S. and abroad as public authorities, governments look to get more efficiency out of the transportation system, that trend is very good for us.

So privatization is very good for Michael Huerta. And Jane Garvey. And Mort Downey. Every single Obama DoT review member is a privatization advocate, despite the fact that the American public overwhelmingly supports *public* investment in transportation infrastructure (regardless of political affiliation), despite the fact that this is an extremely controversial issue, despite the fact that this was supposed to be Bush’s agenda, not Obama’s.

The transition selections matter because Obama transition review teams were charged with significant personnel and policy decisions at their respective agencies. The DoT review team’s leadership suggests that the Obama DoT will be chock full of privatization advocates and pushovers, and will embrace policies that favor Wall Street interests. The LaHood pick is a good example of how this will play out, but I suspect there are and will be others.

The fact that this hasn’t gotten much attention demonstrates the dangers of the revolving door: Huerta, Downey, and Garvey have leveraged years of public sector experience for private interests and (exorbitant) personal gain, but because of their public service and their status as experts, no one questions their motivations.

And quietly, through the classic process of regulatory capture, Wall Street has positioned itself to shape and control the future of American transportation infrastructure. Who knows if they will be successful, but if highways are anything like houses, it certainly is a scary prospect.

Who is Mort Downey?
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 29, 2009 at 13:14 EST

LittleSis brings transparency to the quiet names: people who are not necessarily officeholders, who may not be very well-known, but who exert significant influence over the policymaking process. They make decisions and advocate for policies that affect our lives in profound ways, but we are not well-equipped to hold them accountable or understand their sphere of influence. From time to time, we’ll use this space to give special attention to one of these individuals.

Today’s “quiet name” is Mort Downey. I picked Downey, a former Deputy Secretary of Transportation and recently a member of the Obama Transition, because I believe his career trajectory, influence, and policy outlook shed light on the rationale behind the low levels of public transit funding in the stimulus.

Some background on the stimulus: House Transportation Committee Chair James Oberstar wanted $17 billion in public transit funding in the stimulus package, but by the time the House bill was presented, it had been slashed to $9 billion. The White House was behind the cuts, and Oberstar and Larry Summers reportedly engaged in a shouting match. Congressman Peter DeFazio later called out Summers for being anti-infrastructure. $3 billion of the cuts were eventually restored.

Supposedly, the Obama team’s single most important calculus when determining what made it into the stimulus package was whether projects were “shovel-ready” – projects that can get underway quickly and provide a short-term boost to the economy. But according to many respected economists, including Dean Baker and James K Galbraith, the stimulus package doesn’t do near what it could in terms of funding shovel-ready mass transit projects. In other words, shovel-readiness is not an adequate explanation for the low levels of funding.

The name Mortimer Downey caught my eye because he offered up this bogus explanation to defend the Obama team’s cuts in an interview with ShovelWatch, a stimulus tracking project spearheaded by The Takeaway, WNYC, and ProPublica:

“You have to be realistic about how fast and where money can be spent,” said Downey, who no longer has a formal role in the Obama team. “Some of the things in the transportation and infrastructure proposal are great long-term proposals,” but, Downey said, they can’t get started quickly enough. He noted the Obama administration will release a budget this year, and there will be a new transportation appropriations bill. “I don’t think you can reach an overall conclusion about how well transit is faring until we see all those things. Otherwise it would be a rush to judgment.”

Downey is a well-respected transportation expert. He has impressive credentials: Assistant Secretary of Transportation under Carter, CFO and Executive Director of the MTA in the 1980s, Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Clinton. He was an Obama Transition team lead for the review of the Department of Transportation. You can see it all on his LittleSis profile. Recently, the Washington Post mentioned him as a candidate for Transportation Secretary, calling him the potential “wise man” pick.

But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the wise man doesn’t wield his substantial influence on behalf of the public interest.

Who does he speak for? Since leaving the Clinton administration, Downey has worked as a self-employed transportation consultant at Mort Downey Consulting, and as President and then chairman of PB Consult, a transportation consulting subsidiary of the engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff. PB Consult advises clients in various transportation markets on a whole range of strategic issues: project planning, finance, public-private partnerships, regulatory issues, and so on.

PB Consult’s core business appears to be infrastructure privatization. Two of the three deals featured on the front page of the company’s website involve the privatization of transportation infrastructure – two toll roads, in fact: the A25 Québec and the Northwest Parkway Toll Road in Colorado. The third deal appears to be another Wall Street boondoggle, involving the purchase of port container terminals by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

This is what the sage’s firm is proud of?

PB Consult is also a member of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. “Public-private partnership” is apparently the accepted industry term for infrastructure privatization (I’m guessing it plays better with the public).

Downey has established himself as a cheerleader for infrastructure privatization in recent years. In 2007 he penned an opinion piece for Traffic World, an industry magazine, titled A Role for Public-Private Partnerships. Downey argued that private collaboration was the best way forward for the nation’s transportation infrastructure, given the funding crisis:

Facing this staggering shortfall in funding, traditional approaches have been increasingly augmented by partnerships of private groups with public agencies, which during the last five years have begun pumping larger amounts of money into the system.

There are many forms of PPPs and ways for the public and private sectors to collaborate as partners to leverage scarce public resources and expedite needed transportation projects, while protecting and promoting public interests.

The argument is smooth and innocuous-sounding, and it’s easy to see why he is a high-paid spokesperson and lobbyist for Wall Street’s infrastructure privatization effort.

He also appears to be something of a spokesperson for the Obama administration, and his transition role indicates that he is well-regarded by the Obama team, even if he did not get the Transportation post.

Anyway, his argument in Traffic World begs the question: if funding shortfalls are “staggering,” why wouldn’t Downey see the need for more transit funding in the stimulus bill?

More on the way, but if you’re interested in the pitfalls surrounding privatization, particularly with respect to transparency, check out this Progressive States Network report.

Geithner’s chief of staff lobbied Geithner’s Fed?
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 27, 2009 at 12:39 EST

Mark Patterson, Tim Geithner’s new chief of staff and a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, appears to have been lobbying the Fed – Geithner was president of the New York Fed – shortly after Bear Stearns collapsed last spring.

According to a 2008 lobbying disclosure filing, Patterson – along with Ann Costello and Faryar Shirzad – lobbied the House, Senate, and Fed on the following issues and acts in the second quarter of 2008:

H.R. 3221, Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008, all sections; credit default swaps clearing; covered bonds; bond market liquidity; credit rating agencies; sovereign wealth funds; general economic conditions; P.L. 110-227, Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008; H.R. 5914, Student Loan Access Act of 2008, all sections; active financing; investment banking issues; over-the-counter derivatives; S. 1356, Industrial Bank Holding Company Act of 2007, all sections;

Patterson left Goldman Sachs early in the quarter, so it’s unclear how involved he was in this particular lobbying effort. But this is quite the catalogue of big bad Wall Street issues, everything from credit default swaps to sovereign wealth funds to over-the-counter derivatives.

Geithner’s new restrictions on lobbying certainly look less-than-convincing once you consider the kind of company he likes to keep, as exemplified by the Patterson pick.

***

Though we’ve tried to make sense of Senate lobbying filings on LittleSis – there is lots and lots of lobbying data on this site – the filings don’t do nearly as much as they should to bring transparency to lobbying efforts.

There are a bunch of problems: lobbyists and lobbying clients do not have unique ids, the xml is a mess of inaccuracies (oftentimes listing lobbyists who do not even appear in the actual fiing), the disclosure requirements allow for vague reporting (who were they lobbying at the Fed?), and so on. The Obama transparency crew has their work cut out for them in this area.

So when it comes to Patterson, Goldman, Geithner, and the Fed, there are plenty of questions left unanswered by the data. That’s where journalists come in.

But: really, Geithner? Really?

Irony at Treasury
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 27, 2009 at 09:37 EST

Is it just me or is it kind of ironic – also brash and stupid – for Tim Geithner to hire a lobbyist who has worked on immigration reform issues as his chief of staff?

Shortly after facing questions about the immigration status of his former housekeeper, ABC News reports that Geithner’s new chief of staff was most recently a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs:

Patterson first began lobbying for Goldman Sachs in 2005, after working as policy director for then-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. According to publicly filed lobbying disclosure records, he worked on issues related to the banking committee, climate change and carbon trading and immigration reform, among others.

According to the lobbying disclosure report, Patterson was the sole Goldman Sachs lobbyist on the issue of immigration reform in the first quarter of 2008.

This certainly looks like a strategic blunder, as one of Geithner’s major tasks right now is to win support for a stimulus bill that Republicans don’t seem to like very much. And based on how his confirmation vote went, he could stand to gain a few Republican friends (Goldman’s position on this issue is not compatible with that of Lou Dobbs and his followers).

Unsurprisingly, Patterson also lobbied on foreclosure prevention, predatory lending, mortgage reform, and other typical Wall Street issues. So Geithner has hired a real friend of the American public as his right-hand man. More disclosure filings are here and here, and check out his profile on LittleSis, which I just started building out.

What bothers me about this appointment, other than the fact that it is a nitwit move, is that Goldman is back at Treasury. David Sirota writes:

Sure, I guess it’s a step forward that the Treasury Secretary isn’t an immediate former top executive at Goldman Sachs, as Hank Paulson was. But clearly, Geithner – just a day after squeezing through the Senate confirmation process – is back to his old tricks. With the executive branch having czarist power to hand out bailout money to almost any corporation on any terms, and with the new administration saying there will likely be even more Wall Street bailouts in the future, Geithner seems – once again – ready to give one of the largest banks (and largest Obama campaign contributors) at the center of the economic meltdown a front-row seat in making sure our taxpayer dollars keep flowing to Wall Street.

With a Goldman lobbyist as his right-hand man, Geithner’s move to limit lobbyists’ influence over the bailout certainly looks a lot less impressive. No disclosure filings required.

Connecting the DOTs on Wall Street & Infrastructure
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 26, 2009 at 19:49 EST

Last week, the news broke that infrastructure spending had been cut from the stimulus bill to make way for tax cuts. Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, first shed light on this tradeoff — transit funding for tax cuts, essentially — in a speech to the US Conference of Mayors.

The cuts don’t square with a number of economic and political realities. Obama and his economic advisers are on the record voicing strong support for infrastructure spending, especially as a way of creating jobs; public infrastructure spending has near unanimous support from Americans, according to conservative pollster Frank Luntz; politicians of all stripes want to reduce dependence on foreign oil, and transportation initiatives are a big part of that; and public transit systems are facing dangerous budget shortfalls across the country.

Why, then, is transportation funding getting short shrift?

Here’s my best guess: Wall Street wants it that way.

On Wall Street, infrastructure privatization is the next big thing. It works like this: governments – city, state, and federal – sell off public assets like highways and airports, usually through long-term leases, to private entities like Morgan Stanley or the Carlyle Group. These private players finance the infrastructure deals through bond sales to investors.

High levels of stimulus spending on transportation infrastructure would make it harder for Wall Street to buy off your roads, bridges, and airports at rock-bottom prices.

A few recent press reports indicate that Wall Street is ramping up its push to privatize infrastructure. Last Wednesday, a group of Wall Street firms released a report saying that they could offer a “private stimulus” for the nation’s transportation infrastructure. From a Wall Street Journal article on the report:

A coalition of banks and private-equity firms is pushing for a greater role in reshaping the nation’s infrastructure, hoping to capitalize on government budget deficits and a dearth of funds for transportation projects.

In a report due out Wednesday, a group including Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and the Carlyle Group says $180 billion of private capital is available for investment in highways, airports and other transportation infrastructure. The report says this money could help create millions of jobs, boost economic growth, reduce travel congestion and free up government dollars for other priorities.

In other words, Wall Street wants to finance a new infrastructure boom the same way it financed the real estate boom.

Considering the way that last boom went, it seems like poor timing for Wall Street to campaign for control of public assets. And given that Wall Street isn’t so popular with the American public right now, it seems unlikely that politicians would align themselves with its latest financial engineering effort. Right?

Wrong. The same day that the Wall Street coalition plugged its infrastructure plans, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood echoed their message, telling his Senate confirmation panel that he favored finding private solutions to the country’s infrastructure problems. His comments were reported in a Wall Street Journal article by Chris Conkey, the same reporter who copied the press release wrote the article reporting on the Wall Street coalition’s plans for a private stimulus.

Speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, former Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois said the widening budget deficits at the federal and state levels should lead government officials to take a closer look at allowing private investors to build, operate and maintain new toll roads and bridges.

“There’s not going to be enough money,” Mr. LaHood told the Senate Commerce Committee. “I think we do have to think outside the box.”

He’s right: there isn’t enough money for transportation infrastructure. But a big part of the problem is low levels of funding in the stimulus package.

Wall Street has plenty of other well-connected allies in this fight. Obama’s Chicago, led by Mayor Richard Daley, is at the forefront of infrastructure privatization. Chicago’s pols have been selling off everything from parking meters to airports in recent months.

Upon returning from his trip to the inauguration, Daley made a strong pitch for infrastructure privatization at every level of government, echoing Lahood’s words:

“If they start leasing public assets — every city, every county, every state and the federal government — you would not have to raise any taxes whatsoever. You would have more infrastructure money that way than any other way in the nation,” Daley said. “But, that is thinking outside the box and very few governments ever, ever think outside the box.”

If Daley needs help thinking outside the box, he can always go to his brother Bill, former Secretary of Commerce, who was a board member of the Obama Transition Economic Advisory Board and is midwest chairman of JP Morgan Chase. Or Bill’s son William, a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley.

In recent months, Daley’s solution has proven seductive for many state and local governments, despite the fact that Wall Street control of roads, highways, and transit systems is not terribly popular with the American people (I’m guessing). From a Reuters article last August:

Cash-strapped U.S. state and city governments are likely to sell or lease more highways, bridges, airports and other assets to investors desperate for stable returns after being frazzled by the credit crisis.

The trend is set to pick up speed given worsening budget deficits in state capitals and city halls nationwide.

Of course, if the stimulus geared funding towards transportation infrastructure spending, state and local governments would be less likely to sell off these assets to Wall Street investors. But that funding has been cut substantially, over the protests of Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon and others.

DeFazio has blamed Larry Summers for anti-infrastructure bias. But I’m guessing that Summers is just doing what he does best: pleasing his friends in finance.

I’ll have more on this over the next few days.

Obama Announces Recovery.gov
By Eddie Tejeda  •  Jan 25, 2009 at 00:55 EST

In first YouTube address (seen below), Obama announced Recovery.gov, a new government website that will catalog how the $825 billion economic stimulus package is spent.

OpenCongress notes:

Recovery.gov – will soon be transformed into a database for information. This part of Congress’s effort to bring “a historic level of transparency, oversight and accountability” to the stimulus so that “taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and Americans can see results for their investment,” as stated in the draft summary.

You can download the entire bill here and see a nice pie chart of how the money is currently allocated here.

A few details caught my attention when glancing over the bill. For example:

(6) The website shall provide a means for the public to give feedback on the performance of contracts awarded for purposes of carrying out this Act.

This could be a crucial feature, especially among watchdogs, who’s analysis will be on government servers when history looks back at this time and judges how the money was managed.

And:

(3) The website shall provide data on relevant economic, financial, grant, and contract information in user-friendly visual presentations to enhance public awareness of the use funds made available in this Act.

I wonder how these “user-friendly visual presentations” will take shape. They could range some simple charts to sophisticated filtering visualizations, as New York Times often does. Given people’s concern about the amount of money being spent, I wonder how seriously they will take the presentation of this data to the public.

WaPo asks: Who Runs Gov?
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 23, 2009 at 12:17 EST

Yesterday’s launch of WhoRunsGov, a Washington Post site, marks an interesting development in the history of the transparency movement: it is a groundbreaking attempt by mainstream media to shed light on influential social networks through crowdsourcing and data aggregation.

From the site:

WhoRunsGov.com offers a unique look at the world of Washington through its key players and personalities. It’s your window into how deals get made and policy is shaped in the new Obama administration that is remaking the nation’s capital.

You can browse profiles of rainmakers, look at lists of their key associates (on the lower right), and follow links to other sources of data on their voting records, personal finances, and campaign finances. A team of staff editors controls the content on the site, but users with no Post affiliation will eventually be able to submit edits for review.

We are excited about this, because corporate America is on board with an approach to political data that has more traditionally been the purview of not-for-profit groups and small media firms. And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Not only that, but one of the largest media companies in the country is turning more eyes on the networks that shape policy in this country, and that’s a great thing.

It’s important to note that this site comes in the context of a movement for greater transparency – with significant leadership from the Sunlight Foundation (major funder of LittleSis/Public Accountability Initiative) – that has given rise to sites like Congresspedia, OpenCongress, Sourcewatch, They Rule, Muckety, NNDB, Watchdog.net, GovTrack.us, now LittleSis, and many more, all of which, in one way or another, crowdsource transparency when it comes to elite individuals and networks.

We’re looking forward to the momentum WRG will help generate for the movement. But we do think that similar sites have some critical advantages over the Post, mainly when it comes to offering a broader look at elite networks, encouraging a spirit of collaboration & openness, and deploying advanced technical features.

For instance, asking the question of “Who Runs Government?” without including lobbyists or private sector players is problematic. President Obama has taken laudable steps to keep former government officials from lobbying the executive branch, but the Post is still going to have to deal with the reality of the revolving door and the ways in which it shapes Washington power circles and policymaking.

Sites like LittleSis as well as Sourcewatch, NNDB, and Muckety take a more holistic approach to power and influence in American society, and the Post should follow this lead.

WRG’s terms are also extremely restrictive. It seems somewhat contradictory to offer a guide to key leaders in Washington, encourage users to contribute information and edits, and then claim full ownership of the data on the site, thereby forbidding many forms of productive use. This is, however, what the Post is doing:

5. (a) Except for content you have posted on the Site, or unless expressly authorized by us, you may not copy, reproduce, distribute, publish, enter into a database, display, perform, modify, create derivative works based on, transmit, or in any way exploit any part of this Site…

This is not the spirit of Web 2.0 or the transparency movement, and we hope that the site changes its terms, following the lead of other wikis that scrutinize leadership: Congresspedia, Sourcewatch, LittleSis, and so on.

Finally, the Post has the capital and resources to offer some superior technical features on the site, including visualizations and mapping (a la TheyRule, NNDB, Muckety – and LittleSis, in the near future), browser plugins, and dynamic news content parsing. We don’t see any of this currently.

ReadWriteWeb reviewed the site yesterday and had this to say, in comparing WRG to political data sites (including LittleSis, OpenCongress, the New York Times, Memeorandum Colors, and the UK Guardian’s Free Our Data) that are “doing it better”:

Compared to those kinds of initiatives, WhoRunsGov looks a bit boring so far. There’s a lot of potential though, and we hope to see the Washington Post’s new initiative develop with more impact than it had when it came out of the gate.

We’re also looking forward to further developments, and are interested to see where WaPo goes with this.

What’s next: help us prioritize!
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Jan 22, 2009 at 15:37 EST

During the building of the LittleSis beta, many good ideas for future projects were brainstormed by the development team and the dozens of colleagues and friends from whom we received advice and feedback. Although much of our time over the coming weeks will be devoted to fixing bugs, improving basic usability, and cleaning up existing data, we plan to keep rolling out new features and systematically expanding the current database in big ways when we can.

In the long run, there are a number of things we can do to address the abundance of great ideas for future development and our relative lack of time. 1) We’re going to greatly expand our fundraising efforts now that we have a live website to both show off and build upon, and that will translate into more programming power. 2) We plan to open-source the LittleSis codebase so that all the talented political techies out there can make it better. 3) Exposing our raw data to the public through an API will let others do interesting things with the data beyond our expertise and capacity.

Still, over the next few months we’ll have to be quite selective in choosing enhancements to make, and we want the LittleSis community to help us get our priorities straight. We want to put all our ideas in a single place where users can see what ideas are on our plate, rank them, refine them, and add to them. We don’t want to guess what new features and data matter most to you.

Here’s just a sample of what we’ve been thinking about:

Interface Enhancements

  • visual network maps similar to TheyRule
    or NNDB mapper
  • using more person/org profile pictures & summaries across the site to help users navigate long lists of unfamiliar names
  • allowing analysts to import campaign finance data, photos, etc, into profiles with a click of a button
  • better linking to related info on other great accountability and transparency sites in the Sunlight posse and elsewhere

Building our Analyst Community

  • user-to-user messaging
  • better space for commenting and discussion on profiles
  • blogging tools for analysts

New Data

  • private company boards & executives
  • state-level campaign finance data
  • foundations, their boards, and their grantees
  • employment histories of corporate executives
  • new members of congress

Miscellaneous

  • open API for accessing our raw data
  • better documentation of site features and how to use them
  • breaking news feed about people and groups with profiles in LittleSis
  • a browser plugin for exposing overlooked connections between names in the news

So how do we narrow these, and so many more, down to a few? We could spend a little time building a user-rated wish list tool ourselves (basically a Digg for new features, not articles), but perhaps setting up a wiki for this purpose would suffice? Perhaps there’s an existing open source app along these lines?

Engineers especially: please let us know if you have ideas about how we can best aggregate your ideas about LittleSis and where it’s heading.

New Administration, New Feature
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Jan 20, 2009 at 19:53 EST

Previously, user-created lists in LittleSis, such as Bush II Administration Officials, had limited value. They basically behaved like meta tags, but clunkier. If you added Paul Wolfowitz to the Bush II list, then the list name would show up on his profile, and someone browsing through members of that list would see Wolfowitz on it — and that’s about it.

But now, in time for the inaugural excitement, list pages have some new tabs: Interlocks, Giving, and Funding:

List pages in LittleSis now have tabs for viewing common affiliations of list members, as well as their donors and favorite candidates

Similar to the tabs that appear on profiles for organizations, they identify common affiliations of list members,  their biggest political donors, and other potentially interesting patterns.

Even though the LittleSis profiles for the new White House are still works in progress, the Obama Administration’s interlocks are already quite interesting.

“Le facebook inversé”
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 16, 2009 at 12:53 EST

LittleSis has crossed the pond: Le Monde’s blog Bonne Nouvelle plugged the site today, and France’s first couple showed up soon after. Bonne Nouvelle is big into optimism, and we’re happy the site was presented in that context; LittleSis is all about political hope for our ailing democracy.

An excerpt from the post (translation thanks to Mike S):

CV’s, personal relations, financial scandals — everything is published here by vigilant citizens, who can then share information. The *incestuous relations between business and politics* are clearly innumerable! Take, for example, the Little Sis page of the much disliked George Bush, or even that of Steve Jobs. With facebook, people put their private lives on display with no taboos. But with this type of community initiative, they force the powerful to do the same. *Transparency is the same for all.*

For the record, we should note that LittleSis is not about the private lives of powerful citizens, but about their public lives; all of the data on the site is a matter of public record. Analysts are required to submit working reference links when making edits, and all modifications are logged and displayed, to ensure a transparent editing process.

The site continues to attract a lot of attention at home, too. Tim O’Reilly had this to say over Twitter yesterday:

In that vein, LittleSis.org is an “involuntary facebook of powerful Americans…profiling the powers that be.” Fascinating project!

Kottke liked the name and saw some parallels to a well-known social networking site:

Like Facebook, the site has a particular emphasis on how all these people are connected: politically, financially, socially. The best way to see what it’s all about is to check out some profiles: Barack Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and the list of the 400 richest Americans.

And Dirt Diggers Digest observed that the site could be very useful for grassroots organizing campaigns:

LittleSis is an exciting project that reinvigorates the tradition of power-elite research pursued in the pre-internet era by authors such as Gabriel Kolko and William Domhoff. It also builds on previous online efforts such as TheyRule. It could become an invaluable tool to help us understand the powers that be and pursue campaigns that make them less powerful.

Thanks for all the interest and feedback. Keep it coming!