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CRS Report on Government Transparency Asks Right Questions But Doesn’t Go Far Enough

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Back in February 2009 in Challenges Facing Recovery.gov and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board I wrote the following about making Federal stimulus spending data more accessible and “transparent” to the public:

Whatever methods are developed to represent and report on the various processes that are involved in implementing the stimulus, they need to be understandable to professionals and to the public.

There needs to be developed a way to render the same data set in terms that are meaningful both to policy makers and to the public.

And, we need to makes sure that purely quantitative measures can be supplemented by the actual commentary provided by those affected.

The development of such measures for reporting on progress should be conducted openly as there are many interesting viewpoints that can contribute value in the process.

Finally, beware the involvement of vendors who insist on restricting access through incorporation of proprietary tools and techniques that cannot be easily copied and re-used by others.

Several of these points are borne out in the Congressional Research Service’s January 28, 2011 report The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative: Issues for Congress. In a long and perceptive review of the Obama Administration’s efforts to “open up” government operations and data to public scrutiny, author Wendy R. Ginsberg makes the following observation:

The Obama Administration memoranda issued on January 21, 2009, and December 8, 2009, prompt a variety of policy questions, including whether greater transparency can lead to a more efficient and effective government in a milieu of post-September 11 national security concerns. Greater public transparency and participation may lead to new ideas on how departments and agencies can cut costs and operate more efficiently. Many of the public comments and suggestions offered to date, however, have not provided viable policy options. Moreover, increased transparency and mandatory public participation requirements can slow down government operations by elongating the deliberative process. Increased participation may increase trust in the federal government while concurrently reducing the speed of government action. Additionally, increased government transparency may prompt security and privacy concerns.

Despite the use of qualifiers like “may” and “can” in the above statement, I have to agree with the author’s underlying point. We need to consider carefully whether programs for promoting “transparency” actually benefit the public. While I tend to fall on the side of transparency, given how often secrecy has been used as a tool by demogogues and repressive governments, it’s entirely appropriate to ask questions about “what works?”

In that respect I don’t think this report goes far enough. It raise serious questions but doesn’t really suggest how to answer them.

There are at least three areas that need more attention as Congress considers ways to improve governmental effectiveness and efficiency in light of our projected deficits:

  1. We need to do a better job of measuring the costs and benefits of transparency.
  2. Public collaboration can’t be improved without also improving internal collaboration.
  3. Collaboration is not synonymous with anarchy.

1. Measurement

The Ginsberg report reviews several attempts to assess the progress being made across different transparency programs but does not address the underlying diffculty of measuring, quantitatively, the costs and benefits of transparency. My belief is that it is irresponsible not to enter into any new program without some sense of how, at minimum, that program’s costs will be tracked. Is it any wonder that some managers of programs for making Government data more open and accessible are surprised at the effort involved? Add to that the challenges ofmeasuring the effectiveness of collaboration and you have a recipe for surprises. Granted, we’re talking about breaking new ground here in many programs where secrecy and siloing have traditionally held sway. Still, that’s no excuse for at least trackjing — publicly — how much programs cost and asking how those costs relate to the benefits.

2. Public and Internal Collaboration

One difficulty the Obama Administration has in demonstrating clear benefits from improved transparency is that many of the thought leaders involved in the Administration’s transition and in early program formulation were drawn from environments that emphasized public communication and public engagement. This did not necessarily prepare them for the down-and-dirty bureaucratic restructuring and infighting needed to change large traditional organizations.

A key example was incorporation into Government programs of “lessons learned” from grassroots campaign use of social media. In some cases the “public engagement” side of things worked but difficulties were experienced in follow-through by Federal agency middle management.

When you open a sunlight-flooding window into a room where people have been laboring mightily for years in isolated cubicles, the benefits of that sunlight on your operations is not immediately recognized. Federal workers accustomed to layers of insulation from direct public contact might find themselves suddenly faced with a public inquiry they can’t answer on their own. If they’re not accustomed to reaching out and collaborating with other workers to answer the response, delays and dissatisfaction will result. If they don’t have the necessary infrastructure available to help them collaborate with colleagues, it’s even worse; see How Involved Should Customers Be in Managing Their Own Technical Support? for a discussion related to this.

3. Collaboration, Not Anarchy

Individuals and organizations accustomed to a highly structured or hierarchical approach to public interaction (e.g., using structured regional hearings to gauge public interest in important issues) might react negatively to uncontrolled public debate via a social network or chat group. Sometimes good and clear ideas take time to bubble to the surface. At other times the voices of naysayers and “trolls” drown out civil discourse.

Which is all true. Public discussions CAN degenerate into uncivil bouts of namecalling when exacerbated by necessary support for anonymous postings. At the same time, the opposite tack — ignoring public discussion and refusing to engage via popular social media and social networking tools — places public servants into even more serious jeopardy by remaining ignorant of what’s really going on with the public. After all, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt learned the hard way what happens when you ignore the voice of the people too long. Democracy may be messy, but equating legitimate public discoures with anarchy is even worse.

Conclusion

While I certainly support improved collaboration and transparency as necessary ingredients in a successful democracy, I also believe that the questions raised in Ginsberg’s report are entirely appropriate. We are entering into a prolonged period where many government services are necessarily going to be reduced or eliminated entirely. Not to ask tough questions about costs and effectiveness would be irresponsible. At the same time, we shouldn’t let necessary cost-cutting allow us to retreat to a time when public decisions were made behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis D. McDonald. Originally published Feb. 16, 2011 in Dennis D. McDonald’s Web Site.

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11 Comments

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Profile Photo Daniel Honker

Great post, Dennis. I just skimmed the CRS report, and I think your three points are dead-on. I find myself particularly stuck on your second point, about the need for internal collaboration to precede public collaboration. Open government, in its truest form, really requires building a learning organization; so one of the chief challenges in implementing open government in a large bureaucracy is how to push agencies to do it and ensure accountability for something that essentially runs against traditional bureaucratic tendencies. For example, there’s been criticism that the administration has mandated outputs (e.g., the number of data sets to publish) too much in an effort to ensure the agencies are moving on opengov, but without those mandates not much would happen. Seems like an endless tension to me.

So one must mandate processes, I wonder if some good might come from mandating agencies produce lessons-learned reports after these efforts. I wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to make that work, but it would be a productive step toward making agencies more like learning orgs. Plus, it would be beneficial to see how those lessons learned aggregate across government.

Profile Photo Bob Woods

I’d suggest that you might want to stop for a bit and reconsider your assumptions about transparency.

Transparency is more about access to information than it is about collaboration and public involvement. My experience is that people distrust government because it’s easy for them to say “you’re hiding information” simply because information is not easily accessible to them.

Our city has provided direct access into our financial system and the expenditure of funds 24/7 for the last 2 years. We’ve coupled that with access to detailed multiyear performance measurements. We also put up a way for property taxpayers to see where their personal payments are used.

Providing this access did not result in citizen inquiries, or collaboration efforts to solve problems. Why? Most citizens do not particularly want to be involved in the minutia of government.

What it did result in? Well we’ve got a lot of good press about the ability of citizens to access that information. We see bloggers who say “the city is hiding this” being countered by other bloggers who put in links to the data.

What we have done is raise the level of community trust merely because the access to the data is there, not because of the content of the data.

If you go into the issues of transparency with the assump

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Bob – I absolutely agree that some transparency will never stimulate or need collaboration on the part of government employees; making basic facts available via easily accessed systems might be one good example of that. But what happens when the facts are difficult to interpret or are buried in various systems, and a citizen expresses a request that a contracted community manager hired to oversee an agency Facebook page can’t answer on his or her own? In other words, some “transparency” just involves throwing data over the fence and letting people and interest groups go at it. Things aren’t always that simple, though.

Profile Photo Bob Woods

The issue of employee’s responding to Facebook requests, as an example, gets to the issue of what is “transparency”.

When I looked at Sunshine Review, for example, they defined what they consider transparency. It was clear available access to specific basic information. This is a group that is external to government and defining what transparency means to “the public”, not internal government folks defining what they think the public wants and what systems are needed to deliver it.

The Facebook employee is practicing customer service, not transparency. We should not confuse building robust customer service systems and think that means we’re transparent. We should also remember that when we interpret information on behalf of the public we’re transferring institutional spin.

What I see from Sunlight Foundation and the blogging mass is a lot of desired access to financial information, meetings, reports and the like. For government agencies, that means we should first provide access to financial records, associated measures on programs that show how effective they are, and access to decision making processes.

My experience is that the more we make that kind of access available, the more likely we can increase public trust. That public trust is critical in re-basing government in an era of diminishing resources.

Profile Photo Andrea Schneider

Dennis,

I really like your post. It gets to some of the same ideas I’ve written about for quite awhile. Open Government is a lot more than working with technology, data and transparency. Getting stuck there will limit innovation in organizational design to actualize the open gov principles.

I’ve been working on designing an Open Government Grant System and have a few papers circulating at the moment. As part of that work, I’ve stepped into wildly disparate fields, where dynamic convergence is taking place at a breakneck speed.

In addition, I’m questioning the current focus on program budget cuts, without looking closely at original funding and the federal and state agencies first, which can be redundant and duplicative. In our modern world, many of our current issues cross disciplines, with stakeholders coming from research, health, justice, private sector, education, etc. It makes little sense to treat our allocations as if this wasn’t true.

(I do recognize that there are probably programs which need to be cut for sure.) I question starting in the middle of the continuum of allocation and implementation. We aren’t going far enough to ask those tough questions you are talking about so well.

Andrea

Profile Photo Andrea Schneider

It’s apparent “they” (to be defined) are going after the easiest stuff (relatively). Without being partisan, the slash and burn attempt to cut public programs, won’t make a dent in the bigger picture.

How should we tackle the hard reality? It’s very emotional and scary. Looking honestly at how we got ino this mess, in the first place, should inform new designs and future allocations.

I see innovative opportunities in this serious situation. Hard times can close creativity down, it’s happened many times before. Our challenge is to do the opposite and welcome fresh ideas, take risks and try new things.

There is a lot of room for good ideas, using our talents and skills, putting knowledge to work.

I’d love to see a call for thoughtful action, creating various demonstration projects, all of which can be evaluated and shared, sooner then later.

While new technologies are game changers and must be integrated, there is more to implementing the Open Government Directive and re-thinking our federal allocations and organizational systems.

Just like our budget problems are bigger than what is being presented, at the moment, so is the OGD. It’s a great platform to catalyze change.

Profile Photo Roland Shield

Andrea and Dennis, listen more to Bob and less to the voices in your heads.

Also, Andrea, please avoid diatribes that include sentences like “As part of that work, I’ve stepped into wildly disparate fields, where dynamic convergence is taking place at a breakneck speed.

Take a breather. Go out and do some camping or something. Get out of your own heads. Get a grip. And then come back a tackle transparency with things like plain speaking.