What Does ‘Transparency’ Really Mean?

At CGI Federal, where I now work as a “thought leadership” editor, we’ve been mulling the meaning of transparency lately. Current parlance seems to have it meaning things like posting legislation and regulations for comment, posting videos of speeches and directions via YouTube or other such services, agencies getting on Twitter. All sorts of public-facing openness, in other words.

But we’ve been focused on another sort of transparency: “management transparency,” for lack of a better formulation. Admittedly, this interests us because we put into operation a large percentage of the government’s financial management computer systems and we know they can harvest a lot of very useful data and transform it into insight about agency operations. In other words, we have a business interest in managerial transparency. But even if we didn’t, I would be thinking about transparency this way.

I am, after all, a true federal management geek. I ran Government Executive magazine’s part in the Federal Performance Project for five years, for Pete’s sake. The thought of dashboard displays on the computer screen showing things like changes in units of performance by location and cost per unit in different operations boosts my blood pressure. Discussions about how to best measure results of federal programs in outcome terms can keep me up until dawn!

So I am, of course, hopeful that the Obama administration’s transparency focus includes the notion that federal managers should be making decisions about programs, personnel and budget using data about how well or badly their programs and administrative functions are delivering internal and external results. After all, data-driven decision-making should apply to more than just global warming!

So now I am wondering, is anyone else looking at and thinking about transparency this way? That is, as opening the books on how agencies operate and how money is apportioned within them both to those who run the programs and to the public and Congress and everyone else with some skin in the game?

Has anyone gotten past the “coolness” factor to begin thinking about what meaningful and relevant transparency would be within government? I just read David McClure’s new Gartner piece about transparency and even he only hints at this kind of definition. I ask because if we don’t get past the MySpace/mashup phase of transparency, we’ll have wasted a prime opportunity to apply data-driven decision-making where it could really do some good.

I’m just askin’ . . .

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I think there is a debate about what transparency is going to look like with what content and what display/technology. However, I think the most important part is the culture of openness and transparency and that will filter down. And I think Obama and the administration have that and the appointees are starting to compete over who will be the most open and transparent. I’m hoping there are many experiments on what transparency looks and feels like – there’s lot of opportunity out there.

Anne Laurent

Steve, All true. I guess I am such an early adopter that I am already a bit jaded about blogs and YouTube and the like. When we start to see pre-solicitation briefings on YouTube and real-time cost-per-unit-of-performance charts on agency Web sites, maybe then I will believe we really are getting to transparency that counts! Cheers, Anne

Adriel Hampton

Anne, as I sit here in HR class for my MPA degree, this is also what I think about. And many people are thinking about it. But while it is very easy to do social media (yes, it is), transforming the federal bureaucracy means remaking centuries of public law. It is a huge challenge, parasitically intertwined with high-stakes politics.

Anne Laurent

Adriel, My goodness, so pessimistic for an MPA candidate! I’m not at all sure that managerial transparency will require remaking much law. After all, agencies are free to gather and use business intelligence internally now and they are required to report annually on performance against their strategic plans, so it doesn’t seem there would be barriers to reporting real operational performance intel created from the data they have. The real problem comes when you try to gather up performance data from ancient old programm systems and then marry it with stuff from the finance ERPs. This can be done, but it requires data warehouses and the like right now. While someday, some of that will no doubt reside in government cloud(s), right now we’re talking spending some money on the technological infrastructure of government–not too sexy, I’ll admit. But definitely shovel-ready! Grins, Anne (Don’t fall asleep in class!)

Anita Arile

Transparency is becoming over-rated, especially on Guam where several transparency laws that have been enacted. However, the public leaders are relooking into possibly amending some laws to prevent overexposure of very sensative information or even the possiblity of inadvertently releasing information that should not have been in the first place. (did I say that clear?) Personally, as an employee of the local government, I do not support the release of names and their accompanying personnel information. There is some good points to these information, i.e. locating a criminal who should not be employed… but I think the bad point outweighs any or all of the good… Because my name appears on the world wide web and indicates personnel information, I feel very vulnerable to theft of ID… But alas, (to me) the damage has been done… *sigh*

Mark Danielson

If I could in a sentence say, transparency is hiding in plain sight. I think it goes right to Anne’s favorite public servant: One who is fearless.

Right away with that one above we are down to the nuts and bolts, the brass tacks, the center of gravity: priorities and truth and vision. With a plan to get it done. On time. With clear, timely communications through every step.

Diplomacy is another matter altogether.

I enjoyed your post Anne, thank you. – MD

Daniel Bevarly

Anne – Enjoyed reading your POV on transparency as well as the thoughtful comments by others here. My take on transparency is that the term is multi-faceted. It is a word that applies throughout the governing process. In some cases, transparency refers to disclosure providing citizens with information around a policy decision. In other instances it refers to access to data and internal collaboration around the data that influences the decision. Still, in other cases it refers to participation where external participants provide the data as content and comments for consideration.

I agree with you that data-driven decision-making should definitely apply.

Dennis McDonald

To me “transparency” means not only making information about a process available for scrutiny as part of the management and oversight process, it also means that information about a process is also made available to those who traditionally may have been excluded from direct involvement in managing or overseeing the process. This is one of the reasons that pubic transparency requirements for Recovery.gov are so potentially disruptive of “business as usual” given that public scrutiny is now being promoted.

Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.
Alexandria, Virginia USA

Anne Laurent

I agree entirely about the disruptive effect of the transparency requirements of the Recovery Act. I’m not so sure, however, that they will make information about the processes of government as transparent as you suggest. Perhaps I give the general public, the media, nonprofits and others too little credit, but I’m not sure people will use the information posted on Recovery.org to investigate the how and why of stimulus spending so much as the too whom and where. But I do believe the requirements could be used as a management tool to help those running programs and agencies better understand the how and why of their organizations so they can begin to deliver better what. Transparency into, for example, the true cost per unit of mission outcome would go a long way toward building a foundation for evidence-based management and data-driven decision-making. Two commodities in very short supply in most agencies today. Thanks! Anne