What is Transparency? More Than Publication – the Role of Citizen Exchange

Fair to say that Title XV of the Economic Recovery Act requiring transparency has unleashed a tidal wave of pent up energy and justified momentum towards a more open government. The “strings attached” funding provisions ensure that there will be a solid attempt at top down enforcement of transparency for state and local jurisdictions.

But what is “transparency” and why have we committed to achieving it?


Both the word “transparency” and the transparency paradigm have taken on a common meaning of openness – of doing the government’s business in the sunshine. Wikepedia defines transparency in a very broad sense to mean:

“As used in the humanities, it implies openness and accountability. It is a metaphorical extension of the meaning used a “transparent” object is one that can be seen through.”

The organizing principles of Title XV seem to imply that transparency is created by making government information available to the public by ensuring publication in a Web portal – recovery.gov. See Section 1525.

Why do we want transparency?

The theory behind transparency is not a hard one. By being more transparent government (or any institution) builds trust. Who can colorably argue that being open in most government matters, especially of policy, is not a good thing. (See R.E Oliver, What is Transparency. http://tinyurl.com/by4ppx.) Of course citizens should be able to know how their money is being spent and priorities established. And by having more knowledge, through transparency, at least in theory citizens should better trust their government.

But is that really the way that it works? And is that the way it should and will work under the Economic Recovery Act?

Working towards a more thoughtful expectation.

Are we truly defining transparency in the most useful way, and are we clear with ourselves as to what we are trying to achieve in legislating transparency in the Economic Recovery Act? Can we raise our expectations in a more thoughtful way? I would suggest that we are not. We are not setting our expectations for transparency high enough, nor with clarity of purpose that will enable transparency by government to be a sustainable practice. Here are several thoughts that might help.

The Purpose of Citizen Transparency is to Make Better Decisions

First, we should start by defining clearly what we are trying to accomplish by promoting transparency. Is it enough to be able to say that we are “open” and good things will happen. No.

Isn’t the true purpose of transparency to enable citizens to be more informed so that they can help government make better choices? By building transparency, aren’t we trying to draw upon the collective knowledge and experience of citizens to increase solution possibilities in decision making? I think so.

I believe that transparency is not simply saying to government – “we don’t trust you – therefore we are going to make you publish all of the transactions in which you are involved in a citizen portal.” It is more than that. Which leads to the second shortcoming in our expectations – how do we best build transparency and trust?

Transparency Requires More Than Publication, It Requires Citizen Exchange

Isn’t transparency more than the act of publication? Isn’t it also discussion and dialogue? It is one thing to create visibility of information, it is quite different to make sure that citizens circulate info “in network” It is the citizen exchange “in network” that creates transparency – not the mere act of publication and search. This is the point. It is the citizen exchange and citizen networks that create value and trust – not the act of publication.

Transparency without the human is simply mechanical. Human elements enable us to make connections that in turn drive info sharing. To achieve transparency the government has to also enable human interaction that allows the data to move, to be exchanged and discussed by citizens and agencies. It is not enough to simply publish it and accept public comment – a structured communication.

Transparency is Created From the Bottom Up, Not the Top Down

Which leads to the final point. Transparency is created through bottom up exchange, not a top down push of information. Example: Are citizens more likely to recycle because gov publishes scientific data; or because they share that data w each other? This is the sandy shoal for federal governments’ legislation of transparency. It is being designed as top down, not bottom up.

President Obama is right on this point. Neighborhoods are the petri dish for effective engagement. As my twitter friend @bashley said so well: The empathy and emotional understanding of the human condition [is] necessary to support citizen exchange of ideas. Empathy and emotional understanding takes place locally – where recovery projects are being implemented.

What this means is simple. Citizens organize in many types of networks. And from a technology standpoint, the design must enable citizens to exchange information at a local level to achieve true transparency – transparency that leads to higher levels of trust and better decisions.


So the message is simple. First, the purpose of transparency is more than an informed citizenry – it is an active, helpful citizenry; one that expands solutions. Second, transparency is not achieved by the act of publications but through citizen exchange. And third, transparency is always built from the bottom up, not the top down.

This is my hope for the government – that we get transparency right in a way that shows sustainability through results. Once lost, this opportunity will be gone forever.

Next weeks’ blog post.

4 Steps To Building Transparency in “New World” government:

Step 1: Put gov “in network”. Government moves from trad role of publication to one of interactive sharing.

Step 2: Citizens share information with each other – building ideas and solution possibilities, in network.

Step 3: Government absorbs ideas and new solution possibilities to create efficiencies, save costs, incr productivity “in network”.

Step 4: As government achieves results “in network” it builds trust with citizens, which in turn accelerates citizen exchange.

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Anne Laurent

Well put, Kim! I would add that part of the problem with transparency as it currently is understood is that providing “final” numbers won’t help anyone understand what’s behind Recovery Act spending. To truly understand stimulus spending will require being able to see how decisions are being made all along the line as money changes hands from federal agencies in the form of grants to states, from states to local governments, from those governments to prime contractors and from them to subs and finally into the hands of employees. In each case, it will be vitally important for government to be able to show what unit of desired outcome is being achieved for each dollar of spending, yet this, too, is problematic. The IT systems in the federal government are simply not up to that kind of reporting right now. I suspect some state and local systems are in better shape–e.g., Maryland and Baltimore, where citi-stat and state-stat are used–but hardly all. So citizens will be correct in viewing Recovery Act reporting with caution. This is all the more reason to focus on the local level, where at least citizens have a chance of knowing the firms receiving the funds and being able to see for themselves whether streets really are being paved and bridges repaired and broadband installed right there on the ground. And with the gutting of local newspapers, it will be citizens who also will need to report on what is and is not happening and who is and is not getting funding. This kind of crowd-sourcing is an intended result of transparency, though I am doubtful it can replace the oversight enabled when reporters are paid to exercise it. Anyhow, keep up the good work. Cheers, Anne

kristin wolff

Nice! Transparency conceived in the way you suggest really is a game changer. It means citizen (and not just citizen, but public, community, etc.) engagement occurs not just after the experts have arrived at policy options, but throughout the policy-making and implementation process. It turns the annual strategy & procurement processes into iterative open-sourcing models (and of course raises questions about how decisions get made in that environment). Will you be at Gov2.0Camp? Find me! Love to meet!