How do you define “government transparency?”

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This topic contains 24 replies, has 18 voices, and was last updated by  Daniel Bevarly 11 years, 7 months ago.

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  • #85198

    We are hearing a lot about a more open, transparent and collaborative government as a presidential directive…but what exactly does transparency mean? What’s your definition of “government transparency?”

    Take a look at the feedback from your colleagues below, then let us know what you think: how do you define transparency?

  • #85246

    Daniel Bevarly

    “Transparency.” The buzz word around the ARRA. Since the administration and the public have latched on to this word when it comes to the new open government philosophy, we have learned that there can be many interpretations of the word.

    To communications professionals, it means one thing; to IT folks, something quite different; and, to the public, something all together different. However, to most people, transparency has to do with disclosure. Providing information about an issue, event, project, policy, program etc. and then providing a way for people to find and view that information.

    Typically, that would suffice. However, when the term is applied in our system of government that particular definition does not go far enough to meet the public’s (expected) definition of transparency. In a democracy, transparency should be defined as disclosure and discussion.

    After all, these issues, projects, and programs all have to do with the public’s interest, and using the public’s money. Disclosure, as the definition of transparent provides citizens with a window in which to view a process. By adding the ability to have discussion around that process provides citizens with a seat at the table in which to collaborate about the content that is being presented to them and what it means.

    In case anyone is interested, last March, I posted in my blog “A suggestion for what ‘Transparency’ looks like.” I focused on the ARRA and the challenge to include citizens in not only the reporting of the data but how they can also be part of the dialog on how their money is being spent and what impact it is having on their lives, their communities and on their states.

    Andrew, this is a good question.

  • #85244


    To me, government transparency is reducing the gaps between what government “designs”, and the “reality” of which it is. It provides the public information on the “evaluation” and “measurement” – which in turns may then provide accountability for public servants.

    I see it as though there are multiple types of transparencies – publications that are produced, the transactions that take place, reporting these things to the public and/or other government officials, providing a sense of openess (details on the performance), as well as providing a sense of accountability (the performance information – reward or punishment).

    Within this “government transparency” there is of course, lots of data – financial, procurement, workflow (activities and resources), and registration to record the particular details with the public sector. Everything recorded, and disseminated to the public via news media outlets, government websites and reports, etc. etc.

  • #85242

    Andrew Nicklin

    The best definition that I have seen is here: In theory it is possible to devise measurements against each of these 8 criteria which then allows you to measure your success in becoming transparent. It also doesn’t mean you have to achieve all 8.

    As if that wasn’t general enough, I’d go even wider than that and say that the first step is to not just think of it as a noun (a defined objective) and start thinking of it as a verb (a process).

  • #85240

    Lisa Nelson

    I think of transparency as allowing citizens to “see through” the workings of government. In this way they can investigate whether or not their leaders and organizations have met their expectations. The public is empowered by being brought into governments inner circles.

  • #85238

    Excellent responses! Can we define it in a catch phrase? Not that it’s that simple, but is something like the pithy phrase enough to capture it?

    > No More “Big Brother” Watching Us. We’re All Watching Him.

    > Please Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

    > Welcome to the Government’s Glass House

    Just trying to stir it up here a bit… 🙂

  • #85236

    P.S. Government Executive also featured the issue of transparency in an issue earlier this year called “Behind the Curtain” and the TechInsider Blog just addressed the delay in the memo’s release.

  • #85234

    Ari Herzog

    I don’t understand. Does anyone — at least any Govloop member — NOT want to embrace transparency?

    I think you’re asking the wrong audience, Andy.

  • #85232


    Government transparency is raw information for the people, in close to real time, that isn’t sensitive or private. It allows citizens and organizations to have knowledge of how their tax dollars are being utilized across the federal government.

    Its a 2 edged sword for government – it exposes poorly run agencies by making them corparable to well run agencies, but it also will highlight the groups doing a great job., for all the abuse in the press over some data entry errors (that admittedly should have been fixed before they released it) was a miracle in terms of when it started and the fact that it was out and usable in a very short time.

    Interoperable data will play a huge role in making transparency better and more usable by many. NIEM and other government initiatives that are making government data easier to use should be funded at a much higher level.

  • #85230

    John Meroth

    The act of providing data/information at the appropriate level of detail. Whether or not the details support your position or make you look good.

    Providing too little detail makes it appear that you are hiding something.
    Providing too much detail is dissrespectful and precludes analysis in a timely manner.

  • #85228

    Kenneth L. Mullins

    How do you define “government transparency?”
    As I respond to this inquiry, I feel compelled to put on my citizen’s hat — to ensure that I contemplate my response in the context of “reasonable” expectations that I have of my government. Given that fram of mind, my transparency expectations fall into at least two major categories:
    a. Expectations of direct government service(s) or assistance provided to me, or those near and dear to me (e.g., veterans benefits, social security benefits, Medicare benefits, etc.)
    b. Expectations associated with indirect governmental functions provided for the mutual benefit of all citizens (e.g., national defence, administration of justice, regulation of commerce, etc.)

    With respect to direct government services, my key transparency indicators would include these:
    – how easy is it for me to get to the government service provider(s)
    – how easy is it for me to understand the process(es) by which my “claim” is adjudicated
    – how easy is it for me to avail myself of the provided service or services (once approved)
    – how easy is it for me to appeal an adverse decision — e.g, the denial (or partial denial) of a “claim”
    – how easy is it for me to compare my service level with that experienced by my fellow Americans

    With respect to indirect government functions (e.g., national defence, administration of justice, regulation of commerce, etc.), my key transparency indicators would include these:
    – how easy is it for me to understand the scope, costs, benefits, and planned implementation of newly proposed (or modified) government functions
    – how easy is it for me to understand the ways and means by which newly approved (or modified) government functions are effected, via insight into actual-versus-planned costs, schedule, and other performance metrics
    – how easy is it for me to avail myself of both current and historical data on actual-vs.-planned performance data on government functions being provided (and those projected for future implementation)
    – how accurate and reliable is the data being provided by repsonsible government service providers
    – how easy is it for me to “weigh in” on either the execution of approved government functions currently being implemented, and/or emerging needs for additional (or fewer) government functions (or on the integrity of provided government data)

    If government leaders were to (effectively) survey their “customers” periodically, to ascertain the extent to which the above transparency-related criteria are being met, it would be easier for everyone to determine how much additional focus should be placed on government transparency. . .

  • #85226

    Daniel Bevarly

    a little twist on your phrases:

    No More “Big Brother” Watching Us. We’re all Watching Us.

    We’re Going to Need a Bigger Curtain

    Welcome to the Government’s Glass House, Homeowner

  • #85222

    Sam Allgood

    Transparency is not only revealing what an agency has done, but should include how it got there. It’s easy to present results in a very desirable light that obscures sleazy, unlawful practices.

    I believe that as long as agencies are responsible for determining for themselves what to disclose, true transparency is unattainable. There just aren’t any agency heads, to include the author of the policy, willing to voluntarily put out there information that is going to make them look bad unless they are forced to.

    For instance, in yesterday’s release as reported in Federal Computer Week:

    Administration officials drafted the new directive in a way that lets agencies implement broad open government objectives in whatever way seems best, Kundra said.

    The goal of the directive is to change “the default setting of the public sector from that of being secretive, opaque and closed to one that is open, transparent and participatory,” he said.

    I sure don’t think that letting ‘agencies implement broad open government objectives in whatever way seems best’ will result in a public sector ‘that is open, transparent and participatory’. Whatever seems best is going to be whatever protects my job and reputation.

  • #85220

    Mark Hammer

    I think most would embrace more “transparency”, but I also think that there are many different definitions of what transparency means, depending on the stakeholder.

    For instance, from the perspective of the public service user, “transparent” means that all the required steps, procedures, paperwork, or other requirements are presented clearly at the outset. Such an individual equates more transparency with less runaround.

    From the perspective of the grumpy taxpayer, “transparency” often relates to how money is spent. For that individual transparency = fiscal accountability.

    From the perspective of the voter, “transparency” = comprehensible policies.

    From the perspective of the federal job applicant, “transparent” means they understand exactly how staffing is conducted, how and why they will be tested, how staffing decisions are made, and what happens next.

    From the perspective of the federal employee, “transparent” may simply mean that the decisions of others are comprehensible enough to be anticipable (is that a word?). I.E., the way and basis of the decisions my management makes are sensible enough that I can adapt to them and carry out my own job responsibilities effectively and i concert with the organization’s broader plans.

    In general, transparent = predictable / coherent / plausible To a lesser extent, it also means timely. If one inquires why something happened, and no reply comes back for months, even the most exhaustive reply is likely to leave one thinking that there may be some information being withheld. So let’s also say that transparent = perceptibly honest, with all the behavioural trappings thereof, like timeliness.

    Whatever the case, or stakeholder perspective, transparency does NOT mean inundating the stakeholder with mountains of unexplained quantitative information. That is, transparency does not equal what I like to call “accountabalism”: the cult of measuring anything and everything, regardless of precision or validity.

    The late Larry Terry, in his book “Leadership of Public Bureaucracies: The Administrator as Conservator”, makes the case for public institutions and their leaders doing what is needed to stay true to their mission and mandate. He makes a very persuasive case that the authorities of a public institution, under law, may not be quite as important as its authoritativeness. That is, its perception by the public and other government stakeholders as the place/people/institution where sound judgment and perspective reside regarding certain matters. The willingness to offer one’s buy-in to that public institution’s actvities is not only a function of the historical consistency of their activities and thinking, but the extent to which you trust them. I would argue that staying true to one’s mission, being mindful of it, and reminding stakeholders of it as well, is part of what makes a public institution, and whatever policies, programs, or activities emerge from it, “transparent” to people. It is what lets the citizen and public servant think to themselves “I know how these folks think, what their motives are, what they take into account, and what their track record is, and on that basis, I expect and accept that policy/procedure/outcome X is authentically in the public interest and in my interest.”. In that sense, “transparency” is the obvious connection between the particulars and the higher order motives and principles underlying the particulars.

    Case in point. When you assess a job candidate using some behavioural method, they often want more feedback than you can give them. They may treat the lack of thorough feedback as unfair, largely because they think from their own perspective, and feel your reluctance is impeding their improvement. When you remind them that it could be the case that they are taking that test for the first time, in competition with others who might have been through it before, and that any more extensive feedback to those people during a prior asessment would put THEM (the concerned candidate) at a clear disadvantage, they can begin to see that what might appear to be unfair to them in the narrow perspective, actually makes for a fairer system in the broader picture. That in fact what initially feels like something targetting them is really something intended to protect them and their right to a level playing field. The particulars get connected to the big picture and higher-order principles. Suddenly, the procedures become “transparent”.

  • #85218

    Dan Harris

    “Context!” Great post.

  • #85216

    Angela Sanchez

    Maybe not anyone here, but there are alot of government agencies that are unwilling or reluctant to embrace transparency. Transparency means helping the public understand how and why decisions that influence them are made. It means being accountable to the taxpayer. It means exposing dishonesty, waste and laziness in government. It means rubbing elbows and communicating with the great unwashed. It’s much easier to issue edicts with little or no explanation, ignore the naysayers, give canned responses (we appreciate your input… NOT), and clock out at the end of the day without a care because you have the power and no one is allowed to question you.

  • #85214

    Stephen Buckley

    Dear Sam (et al.),

    I listened to the OGD video, but did not hear the part, reported by Federal Computer Week, about this:

    “Administration officials drafted the new directive in a way that lets agencies implement broad open government objectives in whatever way seems best, Kundra said.”

    Does anyone know if Kundra actually said something like this on the OGD video? (And if so, at what point in the video.)

    As a former federal bureaucrat, I am somewhat surprised (but only “somewhat”) that the White House’s OGD Team (e.g., Kundra) is letting each federal agency make its own decision about how to implement the admittedly “broad open government objectives”.

    When the objectives are “broad”, then it becomes very easy to do almost anything and declare “success”.

    So it looks like the White House does NOT really know how to define what it means by success, so it is hoping that some of the people in the federal agencies will do stuff (or come up with metrics) that “work”. Then the White House can say “Oh, that’s what I was talking about.”

    With his Army background, I think Sam might agree that this approach to “leadership” by the White House OGD Team is called “leading from the rear”. The thing is, real leaders take the lead. They don’t try to get others to “crowdsource” the decisions that only the leaders should make.

  • #85212

    Ken Craggs

    In 2002, W3C founder Tim Berners-Lee raised the issue of “What to say in defense of principle that deep linking is not an illegal act?”

    By the end of 2009, the issue had still not been resolved.

    Considering that some governments are members of W3C, it says a great deal about the true spirit of ‘Open Government’ when they are willing to press ahead with something regardless of whether or not it may be illegal. The UK government is listed under ‘National Archives’

    Regarding the ‘Internet of things’ (IoT), the following article states that:
    “3. The Internet will be a network of things, not computers. As more critical infrastructure gets hooked up to the Internet, the Internet is expected to become a network of devices rather than a network of computers. Today, the Internet has around 575 million host computers, according to the CIA World Factbook 2009. But the NSF is expecting billions of sensors on buildings and bridges to be connected to the Internet for such uses as electricity and security monitoring. By 2020, it’s expected that the number of Internet-connected sensors will be orders of magnitude larger than the number of users.”

    The world government global database

    Here’s a thread I started regarding the ‘Semantic Web’ and ‘Internet of Things’.

  • #85210

    Sam Allgood

    Stephen, do you have a link to the video? I couldn’t find it anywhere.

  • #85208

    Stephen Buckley


    Here’s the video. It’s somewhat long, but worth watching (or listening to) at least once.

    (Yes, CTO Chopra did have a case of the giggles. That part was shown on the John Stewart Show, I believe, but I don’t have that link.)

    Let me know if you hear words like this: ” … that lets agencies implement broad open government objectives … ”

  • #85206

    Sam Allgood

    I just listened to it again (now that I see it, I remember watching it live). I didn’t notice that comment either. The closest I saw to it was comments by Chopra beginning at the 14 minute mark.

  • #85204

    Steve Ressler

    I agree…in a place where people look for it…and findable by search.

  • #85202

    Steve Ressler

    Like this version…

  • #85200

    sowjanya O’Neill

    There are many sites already available that are supposed to post data on contractors, agency spending, agency strategic plans, etc. What these sites lack is real time data, comprehensive access to data and shared feeds to one another. Creating new sites that are visually appealing to the tune of $15mm annually begs the question: what is the purpose of the other sites, what are their costs, and how do they differ from the freshly created ones by Vivek Kundra and his team of contractors?

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