A Suggestion for what “Transparency” looks like

Transparency. It’s the buzz word around the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the planned disbursement, tracking and reporting of the $787 billion federal stimulus package to states. Every state and many local jurisdictions have responded in some way to the transparency requirements (page 9) outlined by the federal government.
As transparency can be defined as an offering of disclosure, then it appears the effort and commitment will be there. However, if you want to define the term in a democratic sense, which for this major initiative, it certainly should be, have the states and feds gone far enough in being truly transparent?

In a democracy, transparency should be defined as disclosure and discussion.

Allan Holmes, the executive editor of NextGov.com, a wonderful Web site I rely on for worthy news and information, asked in a recent column “What Does Transparency Look Like?” But (IMHO) Mr. Holmes is showing his IT side and misses this important point. It’s not just about structuring the data when talking about government transparency.
Let’s face it, there is something hollow, if not wrong, about being invited to a seat at the table, and then presented with information and data about a project that has yet to be administered (and one that’s using your money) and then not allowed to collaborate with those in charge of carrying it out. An accurate description? It’s pretty close.

As I addressed in an earlier blog, while the federal government site, Recovery.gov solicits comments from citizens, it does not explain how those comments will be used and it does not appear comments will be published for other citizens to read. It really comes down to meeting expectations –on both sides.

States are following a similar pattern. Their web presence will be a place for data to be published and allow for citizens to track and review progress. While this action deserves a loud applause, there still needs to be more attention paid to citizen outreach and input.

How important is it to get this discussion component right? By including an element that allows government and citizens to interact along with the already planned disclosure of content will move the transparency needle from one end of the democracy spectrum to the other. It will enable citizens and stakeholders to go from being spectators in this critically important national initiative to offering them the opportunity to be active participants. And that’s what democracy is all about. What do you think?

Dan Bevarly
Web: www.aheadofideas.com
Email; [email protected]
Twitter: @dbevarly

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Agreed. I think the trick is how the gov’t wants to solicit comments and what they want to do with them. Direct democracy is not the answer. But what are we going to do when the most voted idea is legalize marijuana. Or a special interest groups get out the vote and they flood an agency with comments. I still think it is early and we will work through these issues. And asking for feedback and ideas and learning on the fly of how to use them is still better than nothing.

Daniel Bevarly

Steve: Those are certainly the issues that have to be dealt with. But aren’t they are the same issues that occur today through traditional forms of engagement? Pro-marijuana groups demonstrating at the state capitol; special interest groups filling most of the seats at a town hall meeting? I think we need for a few of these aberrations to occur to motivate citizens to connect with their elected officials (whether online or through conventional means). Besides, a “voted” idea in this type of forum is still just a compilation of public comments and not a binding declaration.