4 Steps To Building Transparency in “New World” government:

Government is truly entering a “new world” – one where citizen engagement matters. That is what transparency is really about. And that is why distributed transparency is important – it leads to effective engagement that truly builds citizen trust.

So how do we achieve distributed or network transparency? In other words how do we dimensionalize government’s interactions with citizens, stakeholders and internal agency groups? This is an important question because transparency based on portal based publication, standing alone, will not achieve its intended purpose of building public trust and involvement.

Twitter Themes

Let me share a twitter exchange that started with the following two points:

(1) kpkfusion Recovery.gov becomes a single point of failure in a risk assessment. It fails, transparency fails in the public’s eyes. #gov2

(2) kpkfusion Transparency advocates should consider distributed network transparency more broadly defined to limit risk of public failure. #gov2

Dan Bevarly (@dbevarly) responded to Sarah Bourne (@sarahebourne) and myself (@kpkfusion) that:

dbevarly: @sarahebourne @kpkfusion Not in agreement. This is insider’s (ours) view. Public still does not know what Web transp looks like #gov2

Sarah responded:

sarahebourne: @dbevarly Mismatch btwn what they expected and what is delivered. Problem is potential variations in what is expected. Can be mitigated!

I think that the point that both Dan and Sarah made is important – do citizens really understand what we mean by transparency? Is there an alignment between citizen expectations and what government plans to deliver to achieve “transparency”. And what is it?

Distributed transparency

As state and local government agencies race to define what is a somewhat abstract notion of transparency, let’s ask important questions.

What do citizens expect? Is it another government portal which aggregates volumes of contract data? Or is it something else? Something more meaningful? This is where distributed citizen transparency is most relevant. Citizens will only value that which directly affects them and their quality of life – not an abstract policy debate.

The point is that transparency requires more than publication. It requires dialogue and engagement on a state and local level – in decentralized communications models. What does that mean, and how can government agencies achieve transparency through citizen networks and engagement strategies?

4 steps to “New World” transparency

Here are 4 quick steps to consider as we are thinking about how to build network transparency for state and local government.

Step 1: Help gov act “in network”. Government should consider evolving from its traditional role of publication to one of interactive sharing.

As in business, “old world” government organizations have traditionally relied upon a two way exchange – advertising messages, or “portalizing” information. In the “old world” government agencies stand outside of citizen networks and pitch messages into the networks. In the “new world” agencies are being asked to act “in network”. In other words agencies are being asked to create value by letting citizens dialogue, debate, and share ideas, based on content added to citizen networks by government agencies.

So the first key in building transparency is to enable localized citizen networks. For instance, when state and local government agencies want to stimulate citizen engagement in transportation, healthcare, education, or other projects will they be most effective with local project involvement sites that support peer to peer communication and perhaps peer based alternative analysis, or a portal with centralized publication of contract information?

Step 2: Enable citizens to share information with each other – building ideas and solution possibilities, in network.

Businesses are learning that consumers are 9 times more likely to act on the recommendation of a peer (another consumer/citizen) acting “in network” than an business acting out of network, an advertisement. The same can be said of government agencies.

If government actively enables citizens to provide input and to have dialogue with each other, those discussions can lead to the discovery of new solution possibilities and priorities in a way that government acting alone can not. That is the point of transparency. Citizens build trust through dialogue and discussion, not simple availability of information.

Step 3: Government absorbs ideas and new solution possibilities to create efficiencies, save costs,and increase productivity “in network”.

The whole point of listening to citizens is to make things better: (1) To make government work better (2) To make better policy decisions and to (3) identify priorities and make decisions. Getting results builds trust. To build network transparency, government has to not merely accept input and ask citizens to “connect the dots”, but to set expectations on how that input will be used – getting to results.

Step 4: As government achieves results “in network” it builds trust with citizens, which in turn accelerates citizen exchange.

Finally, government has to show citizens how inputs are used. Did their participation matter? That is the point of distributed transparency. As citizens we do things that matter – that make a difference. As government we build trust when citizens make a difference, when we act on their constructive dialogue.

That is the point of acting “in network”. That is why distributed transparency is important. That is how government agencies will build meaningful results, and that is how citizen transparency will be a sustainable organizing principle for government.

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Pam Broviak

I agree that what citizens expect transparency to be and what government thinks they want might not really be the same thing. Another issue involves citizens wanting information that legally cannot be disclosed. For example, in my own community we have a mayoral candidate who has taken the position that transparency means full disclosure of all personnel related issues which is something that we have always been told would be a violation of the law.

But overall, I think that transparency is being pushed because citizens feel that greater transparency, in some yet to be decided form, would decrease the chance for corruption. I tend to agree because if someone knows that there is the chance that information will be posted online and openly discussed perhaps they will think twice about trying to take advantage of their position.

What is important about your steps is that they open channels of communication, and as you said, build trust, so that we can achieve convergence of everyone’s ideas and expectations. In the end, it really is about creating, allowing, and facilitating dialogue whether it be through a conversation or an exchange of information or data.

June Breivik

I totally agree with you in principle. What I’ve been thinking of lateley is the digital divide. When only appx. 10% of the population contribute to the net, and the schools don’t take advantage of these tools in their tutoring, will web 2.0 be as efficient as we hope for?
When it comes to transparancy: what is relevant information and what isn’t. Is there a dager of spam, that all the irrelevant information gets in the way of what really matters?

Kim Patrick Kobza

June, Two great questions and points:

(1) Digital divide. Is always the case that some will be left out. The point of digital transparency is to improve and add to those methods that otherwise exist today – all of which everyone has access to including those who do not contribute to the net. Failing to implement systems and solutions effectively excludes the digitally involved.

(2) Relevancy. This is a great point. Relevancy is established by the information methods and architecture. Rather than casting a wide open net, in our experience, relevancy is best achieved when solutions enable targeted moderated inputs and discussion with user segmentation of responses. In social networks (like govloops) communities tend to be self policing although from time to time even these should be moderated. I am sure that you have many irrelevant comments or users who try to dominate discussions. That is in part because there are limited recommendation and viral meritocracy features which are key to most successful social collaborations.

As an example: A government agency would never say “Tell me what you think”. There has to be a means for users (citizens) to self segment. So you might publish referential information. And then ask: (1) Do you approve of the choice, if so why? (2) Do you disapprove, if so why? (3) Do you have comments that would make the choice better if approved? (4) Do you have any other comments?

There are back end administrative capabilities that establish what are known as the three “C’s”. Categorization, Classification, and Characterization. These enable the data funnel to be targeted and meaningful to an agency and to a public audience.

Cian Dawson

In the end, transparency is determined not by what the gov does, but by what the citizenry sees.

The disjuncture between citizens’ expectations of what transparency means and what gov thinks transparency means is a significant obstacle. Gov folks live in a land where FOIAs, complex online databases, and hard-to-navigate web sites are standard operating procedure. Citizens want plain language information online in a timely manner and in formats that are easy to access, understand, and share. When gov fails to provide this, it is seen as incompetence, intentional stonewalling, or both.

The means of achieving that transparency will have to be adapted and customized to the situation. There will not be a silver bullet.

Interactive sharing should be fostered and facilitated, but we must avoid simply creating the illusion of meaningful participation, which will only further undermine our credibility.

As gov folks we need to step out of our halls and get back in the streets to hear what our neighbors and customers are saying and experiencing; it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of us. And, I do mean streets, not just the virtual highways — we have a responsibility to serve all the public, not just those glued to twitter, FB, etc.


One aspect of transparency, to me, is agnosticism. I shouldn”t really care where the information is stored, or what policy hurdles need to be cleared for me to get the information, as long as I get the information in a timely manner.

There may be thousands to tens of thousands of databases with the answers to the information I want. I shouldn’t have to know the name of the database but at the same time should be able to access the results.

I think this dovtails on Cian’s answer and to your rule 1. It is a step away from silos of information and also what can be done with the information. I think if you ask anyone, they all want government to be transparent. I think, sometimes, they are confused as to how to provide the transparency and how to look at using existing information in novel ways. Policy also needs to be updated to facilitate that.

Kim Patrick Kobza

Silanthia, I think that you nailed it. That is the point. Too often we confuse the behavioral answer with the technology answer. Two different things. Do citizens even know what transparency means and what to expect? Or what our expectation is for them? Thank you much for your comment.


I think that’s part of the problem. What citizens expect from transparency may not necessarily be what government considers transparency.

And again, I re-iterate that policy needs to be updated from Web 0.5 to Web 2.0 with possible room for expansion to Web 3.0 onwards :-). I feel strongly on this point and really think that we need to shape policy progressively with room for expansion. I think that restrictive and archaic policy can hinder and undo a lot of this good work.