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The Future of Transparency-Effective Outreach

The dominant first year theme of the new Administration has been the importance of achieving “transparency” to build citizen trust. The transparency ideal—inarguable in principle—is difficult in execution.

To this end, most of the available leadership bandwidth has been consumed by public promotion of a data centric portal strategy as a means to achieve transparency. Predictably, over the next weeks and months, the data centric federal portal model will receive increasing scrutiny, and if we are honest, standing alone, will not fulfill the needs of average citizens. Why? And what is the next step?

The challenge of data quality and consistency.

The challenge starts with data quality, but extends to even more fundamental questions of how best to build citizen trust.

Government will not build citizen trust if the data is wrong. Building highly centralized federal data portals that rely upon consistent data collection from virtually every state and local jurisdiction is inherently difficult at best, and unachievable at worst—especially in the short run. State and local governments often have different accounting methods for similar projects and different reporting methods as well.

OMB Watch’s report published in CNN last week underscores predictable limitations. As the report concludes, unless data is uniform and complete, it has little value. Could it be that publication in recovery.gov promises to illuminate the inherent consistency problems and to further erode rather than build citizen trust?

The Administration clearly has some sense of this. At the ACT-IAC Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., on October 25,1999, Ed DeSeve, Special Advisor to the President, Assistant to the Vice President and Special Advisor to the OMB Director for implementation of the Recovery Act Board highlighted the need for data consistency in his plenary dinner speech.

Even given awareness, and an honest attempt to normalize the data, we should still ask whether federalized data aggregation models best build citizen trust-the most fundamental question. Don’t these models glaringly omit critical success factors – meaningful citizen dialogue and decentralized socialization?

Winning with distributed transparency

Effective transparency has to be more than a one way availability of information in traditional Web based publication and broadcast. The key to effective transparency is to circulate relevant and accurate data in a meaningful and interesting way-with multiple points of distribution and learning.

One way to be more effective would be to enable state and local government to support citizen dialogue on local stimulus projects in a distributed transparency model. Data gleaned from the decentralized dialogue could then bubble up to centralized federal policy discussions.

Back in January, 2009, it seemed that this is where we were headed. The new Administration often expressed its understanding of the power of decentralized participation models. For instance, at the Neighborhood Inauguration Ball, newly elected President Obama recalled his days as a community organizer. In his often-stirring speech he deftly described how very important “ground up” participation was from neighborhoods to Washington to effectuate “real change”.

Somewhere between then and now, the promise of ground up participation has been subordinated to ambitious portal based “top down” data architectures as a way to best win the trust of citizens. In fact, data centric strategies promise quite the opposite—greater citizen confusion, more skepticism and less citizen involvement. Current portal strategies mimic “Old World” information and publication models rather than “New World” distributed learning models based on decentralized citizen interaction.

Trust through engagement – Citizens as consumers

Beyond simple debates of public policy, there is another emerging dimension to the transparency challenge that is even more fundamental to success or failure of stimulus initiatives-citizen acceptance. With the policy choices a “fait accompli” do citizens (consumers) understand, want, and will they use the new government services provided by the massive stimulus expenditure? As examples, many billions of dollars of stimulus funding have been allocated to building health care record exchanges, far reaching broadband access to rural areas, expansions to the power grid, rapid transit, and more effective and inclusive educational opportunities.

There will be little if any benefit to the massive government expenditures unless citizens understand, want, and embrace the services provided. In this sense citizens are consumers of a new set of government services. Are we going to attempt to achieve consumer buy in by building even more data portals? Or will we elevate our thinking and our engagement strategies to achieve wide spread citizen adoption?

Yochai Benkler in his Wealth of Networks describes the critical nature of citizen recommendation and referral from credentialed peers. As in the consumer world, citizen recommendation and exchange will be far more meaningful to adoption of any good or service – including specifically those provided by the government under the stimulus spend.

Getting closer to government’s consumers.

Once again the key to success in reaching citizens as consumers is decentralization. Government needs to trust and empower its citizens to actively evaluate and embrace the new government services being offered. To this end federal agencies might consider an alternative strategy.

Wouldn’t it be simple to provide funds to state and local government to build technology systems designed to involve citizens in the implementation processes for new government services funded by remaining stimulus dollars? Let citizens set priorities, identify problems and concerns, and suggest solutions for those massive expenditures? Isn’t this how we best build citizen trust and understanding- through involvement, contribution and exchange?

Fairly, this thought process largely runs counter to a centralized view of federal government as the focal point for meaningful citizen engagement. But it is difficult to legislate the way that citizens actually behave – locally, with citizen peers that they trust.

The necessary role of the federal government is indisputable. But the criticality of state and local engagement is necessary for meaningful success. Citizens predictably care about what directly affects them. Washington is far off for many.

The question—are federal data portals creating more or less distance between government and its citizens, or is there a better way to earn trust? And if so, perhaps the dominant thematic should be decentralized citizen dialogue managed by state and local governments on federally funded projects.

Decentralization and citizen exchange – critical components of outreach – are the future of effective next generation transparency.

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I’ve been hearing similar thoughts at a few recent conferences I’ve attended. There is debate if data portals is the core of what citizens want. I would agree that there is probably a limited group of folks that are highly interested in this data. However, my hope is that these limited few will keep mainstream level applications like flight tracking apps that make it useful for the general public.

Additionally, I agree that we can do a ton more with citizen engagement directly on topics they are truly interested in. I would love to have a say on how my state and local government spent federally funded money and I do not want to attend a townhall meeting in person to raise my hand. I’d love to participate online and encourage others as well. Would be interesting if all federally funded projects required a citizen engagement piece to it.

Kimberly T Nelson

Many years ago in my environmental agency, we created the concept of data stewards. Our data stewardship responsbilities were in some respects modelled after our land stewardship responsibilities. LIke our land, data was perceivedd as a precious resource, and needed appropriate stewardship. Transparency is an important part of overall data stewardship. The words of Justice Brandeis are particularly relevant here….”
sunshine is best anticeptic.” However, sunshine alone won’t cut it without appropriate government employees taking direct responsibiltiy. I am convinced in less the 5 years, the role of data steward will be firmly planted in many job descriptions and titles.

Daniel Bevarly

Many believed that this administration’s version of “transparency” would be akin to the description you touched upon: engagement. Unfortunately, their take on this term as far as the Recovery.gov and stimulus tracking goes is transparency = disclosure (and most states have taken the same approach).

This is the basic Web 1.0 strategy of pushing content to the masses. Sure it may be comprehensive and it may have some cool analytic components attached, but does it engage citizens?

Government’s version of transparency must go further to include disclosure + dialog. Especially when the talk is about the ARRA, the question is do we want to peer through a window or do we want a seat the table? A key opportunity exists for states to fill this void within their own jurisdictions.

Kim Patrick Kobza

All, Thank you for your great comments. I think that this is an important and relevant dialogue. We will have to work to expand it. Thx! K>