Let’s get transparency right.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed this Friday the 11th, requires an extraordinary level of “transparency” on the part of federal, state and local agencies. Title XV embodies the transparency requirements.
Section 1511 requires that all local and state governments receiving funding for infrastructure investment, must certify:
“..that the infrastructure investment has received the full review and vetting required by law and that the chief executive accepts responsibility that the infrastructure investment is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars… the certification shall be posted on a website and linked to a website established by section 1526…”
Section 1521 in Subtitle B requires reporting that shows:
“…appropriate measures for interagency collaboration relating to covered funds…”
Section 1526 then contemplates that the federal government through a newly created review board (The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board) establish a super portal to which all information related to awards and expenditures under the Act is then published. Subsection (c) describes the type of content to be posted to the website. It includes in part:
“(3). …data on relevant economic, financial, grant and contract information in user-friendly visual presentations to enhance public awareness of the use of covered funds. ”
(6) The website shall provide a means for the public to give feedback on the performance of contracts that expend covered funds.
The intent to create transparency at all levels of government is extraordinary. But will the methods proscribed in Title XV – maintenance of a super portal – maximize transparency to citizens and stakeholders? Probably not – and not standing alone.
Portals and Linear Transparency Models
Title XV promotes a now old world view of achieving transparency – transparency created through publication and “findability” of information in a portal that is maintained in a highly centralized federal agency that requires data collection and theoretically public feedback for projects that are to take place on a state and local level – a decentralized activity.
Besides being unmanageable, there are many examples of sub-optimal results for the model being adopted – an example being public comment on the labyrinth of administrative rules. Has there ever been a highly centralized portal that has created mass transparency for state and local projects? History shows that highly centralized federal models that seek to engage citizens on local projects are generally not effective.
• Citizens who reside at a state and local level are much more comfortable interacting with their state and local government than they are with a federal agency in a super portal with respect to state and local projects. [this is different than federal public policy initiatives].
• Super portals built to enable structured transactions and the display of large volumes of information historically create very poor “user experiences” for citizens because they lack key design characteristics that would encourage citizen interaction – for instance, one-click display of project information, display of information in a way that creates clear citizen expectations, and display that builds “social attention”.
• Relevant project information and the state and local officials who are responsible for that information, reside at a state and local level. They are typically known to citizens who live in their geography – not who are remote and far away in Washington D.C. The bonds of citizen trust are going to be more prevalent where project administration actually takes place – not at a distance to those projects.
One can envision the super portal site envisioned by the Act – especially one to be designed in 30 days. List after list of project information and government contracts searchable, if not easily understandable.
Network Transparency and Hybrid Citizen Networks
If the goal is citizen transparency, sense of ownership, and meaningful citizen participation, there is a much more effective way in which to architect the transparency, or at a minimum to supplement the now legislated design requirements. That is through network transparency built with decentralized state and local administration.
Network transparency is the openness that is achieved through citizen exchange in a dialogue with other members “in network”. Citizens learn exponentially more about projects in dialogues that take place locally – proximate to infrastructure projects – with state and local officials and fellow citizens than they will ever learn in a centralized portal designed to aggregate many contracts and many projects – the great majority of which are highly irrelevant to citizens who are interested in their local projects.
Transparency systems should be designed to enable citizens to interact and engage on project design and implementation – project characteristics that drive costs and budgets. This means that transparency for infrastructure projects would be best built with state and local project sites that simultaneously support both project communication for multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional collaboration in closed networks, and informed citizen communication in open Web-enabled public citizen networks built to allow peer-to-peer exchange. In other words, project based hybrid networks create network transparency.
Achieving real change is critically important.
If a goal of the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act is to set the standard for citizen engagement, transparency, and accountability, it is critical that the information support systems enable that citizen engagement to take place in highly relevant decentralized online environments maintained by state and local officials. These online communities will be proximate to the infrastructure projects being managed, not in a federally managed Web portal designed to aggregate a massive amount of contract data.
The danger in not recognizing the difference between the two approaches is that the administration could actually defeat its stated goals by turning citizens off with an ineffective experience in an “old world” communications model. Once the promise of transparency and effective engagement is not realized, they may not come back. We will have lost their trust.
Alternative approaches to online citizen engagement – even if supplementary – should be strongly considered so that we are both effective in building a winning strategy for such a critical and informative piece of legislation and the impact it represents, as well as setting a standard that can and will serve as an example for future success.
It is time for real change. Title XV, standing alone, doesn’t get us there.