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Government Transparency Ain't All It's Cracked Up To Be -- Yet

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for “open government.” But there are problems inherent to real-world democracy that can’t be automatically solved by making the workings of government more visible to the public.

This is especially true about the reporting by government of data collected from large and complex populations of people and organizations. (I wrote about one example last February in Challenges Facing Recovery.gov and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.)

Why doesn’t “transparency” around large complex programs automatically succeed? There are several explanations:

1. People make mistakes. Building complex databases from hundreds, thousands, or even millions of different sources is bound to introduce unintended error somewhere along the way. Quality control efforts are essential but must be implemented throughout the process from data collection through final reporting and access. All that quality control takes planning, time, and money. The resulting data sets are bound to contain errors. People can pounce on these errors to cast doubt on the entire effort.

2. Source data can be sabotaged. Many open government efforts depend on widespread public participation, even volunteer effort. If someone wants to make a system look bad, source data can be withheld, selectively reported, or even incorrectly reported. Then when reporting time rolls around those same errors can be pointed out as “evidence” that the overall system is untrustworthy. Has this happened? I don’t know. But when you look at the complexity that surrounds some reporting efforts you realize how easy it would be to throw a “monkey wrench” into the works.

3. Facts aren’t sufficient. Even if the system gathers data flawlessly from a myriad of local sources, builds a comprehensive database with squeaky-clean reliability, and makes the contents of the database easily accessible in detailed and summary form, those who don’t support the underlying assumptions behind the data will never be convinced of (or admit to) the facts the data are intended to document. That’s just politics as usual.

4. Communication can be restricted. Governments of all shapes and sizes are good at figuring out ways to keep facts away from public scrutiny. While we might all agree in principle that certain national security data needs to be kept away from prying eyes, the fact is that government bureaucracies are well-practiced in burying unpleasant, embarrassing, or inconvenient facts, even in the face of public pressure for openness.

Still, I’m a firm believer that democracy functions best when the inner workings of government are visible. But creating and taking advantage of that visibility is not a simple task. Creating and maintaining reliable sources of data requires time, money, and expertise.

More importantly, people need to be able to gain access to and understand what the data are all about. One problem is, as the complexity of that data increases, the expertise required to understand and interpret that data also increases. Consequently the need for such expertise increases the likelihood for politics to flavor how the facts are interpreted.

What’s the solution? More transparency, it’s obvious to me, is one answer; this current Administration is certainly behind this when compared with previous Administrations. But that’s not all. Vivek Kundra lists the following complex elements in Changing the Way Washington Works as he introduces the Federal CIO Council and OMB’s Data.gov public dialog effort:

* Focus on Access
* Open Platform
* Disaggregation of Data
* Grow and Improve Through User Feedback
* Program Responsibility
* Rapid Integration
* Embrace, Scale and Drive Best Practices

This is a long list that will require a LOT of work to implement. But it’s a good start.

It isn’t possible to reverse decades of secrecy, compartmentalizing, and data hoarding overnight. But I’m optimistic since, despite the costs of transparency, it’s probably impossible to reverse the flow once the barriers start to fall.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is a management consultant working from Alexandria, Virginia. He can be reached by email at [email protected] blog post was originally published on December 18, 2009 in Dennis McDonald's Web Site.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Often we forget that for every new amazing thing it won't be 100% perfect and all positives.

I think government transparency will move us forward say 10 steps but will be countereffects to bring back 2 steps - but we are still up 8 so that's good.

I'm sure there will be some blowback about not perfect data, reporters taking data out of context, and just generally people using the data to tell the story people love to tell about "inefficient government." A government that is efficient story just isn't sexy.

But 8 steps forward is still awesome.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

I am hugely supportive of open and transparent government. Which is why I am concerned of the apparent lack of a concentrated and focused effort towards its achievement. There is a LOT of talk about it all and recent publication of data sets. But in order to truly achieve transparent government, a plan must be worked out that allows successful implementation for both citizens and those working in government. If either side fails, the other side will fail.

So on one side we have citizens who are excited about and wanting data they feel the government has, and on the other side we have government wondering how in the world they will collect all this data, what data should they collect, how it should be distributed, and what other information needs to accompany the data for it to be properly understood. So here is what I think government needs in order to provide a successful distribution of data to the public:

First we need to decide that data collection is a function of government because I am not sure that is a given. Yes, we have always collected data but usually only to provide another basic government service. Data collection and public distribution alone was never the ultimate goal. Citizens need to understand that this will only be done at a cost and that cost will be passed onto them.

Once data collection & distribution is accepted as a government service and citizens accept it as a service for which they will pay, we need to decide what type of data the public wants us to collect and distribute. For example many agencies count the number of vehicles traveling on an average day on a given road. Many times only the number is collected - should government always have to provide what type of vehicle? Brand? Color? Should this data be collected on all roads and how many times a year should this be done? Every day? (going overboard to prove unlimited data is possible so limits must be established)

Which leads us to developing standards of collection and distribution for each type of data that is settled on in the last step. This will ensure that data can be compared across agencies and by people from any region. (Simple example is reporting of all roadway widths - what if one city does this by feet and another by the metric system. Much more difficult to easily compare.)

Then finally it would be helpful if standard formats of delivery were established. Determine for each data set what type of format(s) must be provided. Otherwise, you could get someone requesting some obscure format that is not easily produced from an existing data set. (doc, pdf, shapefiles, dwg, etc)

Something like this should have been done a long time ago for the GIS data we all produce and distribute, but no one has taken the lead to develop it so that GIS data can easily be shared across jurisdictions. For this to succeed on a national level, the natural lead agency is the federal govt. However, it CANNOT be another unfunded mandate with no guidance or input from the locals & citizens. It needs to be a collaborative effort of development, and there needs to be guidance in its implementation.

Failing to follow through these basic steps will result in a situation similar to a customer ordering fries at McDonald's and having the cashier hand them a potato. Close but not what they want. Then they get mad and think it is the cashier's fault.

Profile Photo Steve Ressler

I've heard the Virtual Alabama story a few times which illustrates your point Pam. They wanted to get all the data collected by all the various state and local agencies together to provide better synthesis and geospatial representation. And they found out a ton of different agencies were collecting similar data at different costs with a lot of overlap. And a lack of standards.

Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

It's always best to have standards, but a lack of standards should not be a reason why government agencies don't make what they currently collect available to the public. In some cases, waiting for standards to be developed and adopted is a guarantee for long delays. Also, having a comprehensive plan for collecting data is always a good idea, but in many instances just making available what's currently being collected can be a vast improvement over the current situation.

Profile Photo Pam Broviak

Here is some information we collect right now that we could distribute within a day from receiving a request. Should we be readily handing this out with no holds barred or pausing to consider the consequences?

List of complaints, names and addresses of those complaining, issue about which they filed a complaint

Copies of building permits along with detailed plans of homes (makes it easier for those casing homes)

Names of those delinquent or late on paying water/electric/sewer bills.

Names of those who have submitted a check or credit card payment and had notices of insufficient funds or late payments or credit card denials.

Names of those paying property taxes and date by which their payment is made.

Driver's license and vehicle license expiration dates with names and whether they were paid on time.

Name and address of all who have permit violations

Names on all utility bills, amount of water/sewer/electric used each month

And for an "embarrassing" example (in case some of the above weren't enough) in a city where I used to work, we had a sewer backup from a rental home. Upon digging up the service, our crew discovered so many condoms that they filled a bucket. Our foreman told the landlord who said "that can't be, my daughter lives there!" Should we post each time we clear a backup and at what address and who the owner and tenant are and what was the cause?

All these are the types of data that give me pause when I read everyone demanding "our" data. It is not that we don't want to give it out. We just realize that not everyone might really want all the data released. So again, I think citizens need to understand that this information could be released, then make the decision on yes or no if govt. should be giving it all out and then establish some guidance.

Profile Photo Christopher Parente

Good post, Dennis. How about this for one more issue -- limited public participation. Government has the responsibility to serve all, yet most can't/won't participate actively in open government. Call it the "enlightened 10 percent," call it what you will. But efforts to use public feedback could lead to a Wikipedia type situation, where few contribute while many benefit by trusting the information is accurate.

Note I'm not making a value judgement here -- some people can't participate due to work, family, economic demands. But depending on a relatively small % of the public can skew results.

And as Niebuhr said, "political reform belongs in the hands of those with an acute understanding of the limitations of human capacity, and the intractibility of sin." Better processes don't change human nature.

Merry New Year to you and yours! And remember we were going to start chatting via Skype.