Is there too much transparency talk in Gov?

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This topic contains 17 replies, has 8 voices, and was last updated by  Peter Sperry 4 years, 11 months ago.

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  • #181325

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    An interesting commentary in NextGov by a GWU professor asserts that “Transparency Is Overrated” (headline). That is, despite studies, conventional wisdom and arguments to the contrary.

    For example, a simple search of the word “transparency” here on GovLoop returns over 3,700 results.

    The GWU professor writes:

    • “The main reason transparency is vastly oversold is that it rests on a popular—but highly naïve—theory of how our democracy functions: Namely, that it operates as a direct democracy.”

    • “This theory assumes voters can learn about the ins and outs of the numerous programs the government carries out; evaluate their effectiveness and costs; and determine which they favor or are keen to change or discontinue.”

    • “Moreover, transparency, itself, requires the kind of coercive government regulation that proponents claim it is supposed to replace.”

    Questions

    1) Do you think transparency is overrated or oversold as a real or perceived public policy remedy?

    2) Does transparency mean more regulatory overkill?

    3) Is gov generally transparent enough, not enough, or do most agencies usually strike the right balance in today’s fast-evolving digital/mobile information age?

    4) In the end, is “transparency” just the latest buzz word being sold as a magic bullet for public sector PR purposes?

    * Photo by me (sunset through trees)

    * All views and opinions are those of the author only.

  • #181359

    Peter Sperry
    Participant

    1) Do you think transparency is overrated or oversold as a real or perceived public policy remedy?

    Yes, but….. No mechanism for public oversight is perfect. Transparency has its flaws, not the least of which is the old sausage making analogy. Even people who favor the end result of public policy formulation need a strong stomach to watch the production process. Nevertheless, in most instances, the benefits of transparency more than compensate for the defects.

    2) Does transparency mean more regulatory overkill?

    Sometimes but transparency can also help prevent backroom deals to promulgate harmful regulations by facilitating public opposition before they are promulgated.

    3) Is gov generally transparent enough, not enough, or do most agencies usually strike the right balance in today’s fast-evolving digital/mobile information age?

    Some agencies are better than others. Very few provide enough transparency to allow effective citizen based input in agency operations and almost all try to bury decisions and activities designed to placate their hard core supporters at the expense of outsiders. Most service agencies are pretty good about transparency. Regulatory agencies much less so. Law enforcement and security agencies pay lip service to transparency when they worry about it at all.

    4) In the end, is “transparency” just the latest buzz word being sold as a magic bullet for public sector PR purposes?

    No and Yes. The earliest known example of government transparency efforts would be the Greek assemblies where public policy was openly debated for all to hear and participate. It was such an effective PR mechanism for consolidating real authority in the hands of a small number of powerful families that Rome later adopted it in their Senate. Some form of transparency effort has been conducted by every government in history. All have contained an element of PR designed to hide the influence of special interests. But in general, the people are better served, more protected from abuse and have greater input to public policy through transparency mechanisms than any other means except the vote.

  • #181357

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    “Transparency” attempted is not transparency achieved. There is no transparency attained, as indexed solely by what the transmitter did. There is only transparency indexed by what the recipient understands.

    I think there is every good reason to try and make the reasoning underlying government decisions,policies, and programs, more comprehensible to both citizens and other stakeholders. But, just like that e-mail memo from management to all employees that leaves you scratching your head wondering what the dickens it actually means, or any of those Dilbert strips where one of the senior or middle managers erupts in a torrent of buzzword-laden bafflegab, just because people go through the motions, doesn’t mean they have created transparency of any kind.

    Perhaps most critically, what is presented as “transparency” rarely reveals the tough choices that had to be made, and the priorities that had to be balanced. In other words, there is nothing provided that fosters the sort of clarity leading to recipients thinking “Not what I would have preferred, but yeah, I can see that in those circumstances it was probably the best course of action”.

    Generalizing from the very best theories of how children are most likely to “internalize” moral decisions and rules laid down by powerful others, the goal is to make the recipient of the rule/action feel that it is exactly what they would have done in the same circumstances. When it feels like the action you would have done yourself, it is more plausible,acceptable, and likely to guide your own independent actions in future.

    And sometimes, that means the transmitter has to be a little bit vulnerable.

  • #181355

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    Thanks for your astute feedback, Peter. As usual, you raise several excellent points.

    I particularly agree with your comments about the “old sausage making analogy” that is so inherent to gov policy making. Nevertheless, as you wisely point out:

    • “Transparency can also help prevent backroom deals to promulgate harmful regulations by facilitating public opposition before they are promulgated.”

    Also, your knowledge of gov transparency in Greek history is very interesting and enlightening. I think you nailed it in your conclusion:

    • “….the people are better served, more protected from abuse and have greater input to public policy through transparency mechanisms than any other means except the vote.”

    Again, Peter, many thanks for sharing your words of wisdom. Your valuable feedback always enhances the quality of these discussions.

  • #181353

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    Mark, thank you for so eloquently making this important distinction:

    • “There is no transparency attained, as indexed solely by what the transmitter did. There is only transparency indexed by what the recipient understands.”

    Or, in other words, just because you sent it does not mean I received it. You also make another excellent point about:

    • Dilbert strips where one of the senior or middle managers erupts in a torrent of buzzword-laden bafflegab, just because people go through the motions, doesn’t mean they have created transparency of any kind.”

    Thus the promise of transparency does not always result in the actual practice of being transparent. Moreover, we must dissect the word to fully comprehend what it means to different recipients.

    So what is real transparency? I suppose the beauty — or lack thereof — is in the eye of the beholder.

    Or, as one of our former presidents might say, “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

    Thanks, as always, for the awesome feedback, Mark.

  • #181351

    Dale M. Posthumus
    Participant

    I agree with Etzioni’s apparent, overall principle, which is transparency is a tool, not the solution. And, transparency is only as effective as the quality of information and the way it is presented. My disagreement arises both with the all-or-nothing slant of the discussion and his focus on transparency in the private sector and transparency in govt.

    Correct, the average citizen does not have the time to wade through all of the data on all of the govt programs. But, that is not the intent. A person makes the time to wade through information when an issue is of interest to them. Our only input to govt is not simply to vote, then sit back and watch. The more/better information we have, the better is our opportunity to learn. Transparency is just as important in knowing what the govt is doing (whether, law enforcement, tax authorities, health care, or filling potholes) as it is in knowing what companies and individuals are doing.

    In the end, transparency is a tool, and it is only as effective as we want to make it.

    I have little trouble with regulation that is necessary to make transparency a useful tool. But implementing good regulation does not mean not getting rid of bad regulation. Now, we can debate what is “good” and “bad” regulation.

  • #181349

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    Dale, thank you for sharing such insightful and keen observations. I agree with your many excellent points.

    FYI, just in case you missed it, I penned a blog post in August that be of interest:

    More Transparency Needed for Federal Communicators to Build Public Trust

    • “Put simply, front-line federal communicators need more access to key data and information to bolster agency transparency and citizen engagement.”
    • “It’s important to reiterate that real transparency goes beyond words or principles. It must be systematically put into practice from the top-down and permeate all levels of communications policies and practices.”

  • #181347

    Earl Rice
    Participant

    I will cut the philosophic contemplations out on this.

    I think the first part is in the title. Is there to much transparency talk in the Gov?

    There’s a lot of “talk”, probably to much “talk” of the buzz word “transparency”, and it sounds good, but in reality there is very little “action” behind the “talk”.

    First, what would transparency gain if anything in practical terms? That is the real question that we need to answer. So the citizens know more about what is going on in government. I ask would they? Or would they only know what the Agencies want them to know. And, if they know more, can the public even do anything with the information of any practical purpose. Are we anymore transparent than we were 5 or 10 or 50 years ago. The answer to that one is so politically charged, just as the phrase “more transparent” that I will not even wander down that perilous path riddled with booby traps, IEDs, tiger pits, land mines, etc. in this forum. The one advance I have seen is all the regulations, guidelines, and laws are in fact available on line. You just have to research the USC’s, Federal Registry, and CFR’s to find out why things are done the way they are (and have an indication when they are not). But that doesn’t mean the common citizen can find the rules, let alone understand them. And further, even if they know, other than the power of vote every 2 or 4 years, there is little else that can be done to influence how things are conducted. I was once asked why I did things the way I do. I answered because that is they way the law says I have to do them. See there’s this big domed building in DC, where the House and the Senate pass these things called bills, and then it goes from that to a little White House, where the President signs them into law. Then I do them the way the law says. I think that is pretty much the way we do everything in the Federal Government (or should be anyway).

    Transparency sounds good, nice buzz word, PR people love it, sounds great at press conferences, but hard to achieve, and questionable if it should be achieved. I guess if our government was so transparent, then there wouldn’t be organizations like Judicial Watch taking the Federal Government into court over Freedom of Information Act releases. The information would be there already totally transparent. Scandals, there wouldn’t be scandals in government, because everything would already be so transparent that everyone would know before it was released.

  • #181345

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    Transparency can, and should, happen at many different levels.

    Some 15 years ago, in another job, I had reason to stumble across the State of Washington recruitment and job application site. What impressed me tremendously was the amount of clear and straightforward information they provided to visitors about how selection tests were developed, scored, and used. Indeed, a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff usually not revealed was made available to people applying for jobs. I made contact with the woman who was behind the website, and had several exchanges with her about the genesis of this (at that time rare) way of greeting job applicants. She told me that it was initially prompted because they were shortstaffed, and couldn’t handle the phone calls from confused and angry people, so they decided to put up on-line what they would normally tell callers.

    But a funny thing happened. The more transparent they made the entire process for people, the fewer complaints of any kind they would receive. Indeed, the drop in applicant dissatisfaction and complaining was so stark, that they decided to make it a point to put the information up where people could find it, regardless of how many staff they had. Putting their cards face up on the table saved them time, energy, good will.

    As I’m fond of saying, whenever transparency gets up and leaves the table, even if only for a moment, fear, loathing, and paranoid conspiracy theories are more than happy to take its place.

    I fully agree with Earl that there IS too much talk of transparency. But even though some things are likely to remain opaque for the foreseeable future, it is still possible to take a step back from what one does at whatever station/level you happen to be in, and make the way things work clearer to all the various stakeholders. If they can understand your thought processes and contingencies a little better, it won’t be nearly as difficult to earn, and keep, their respect and buy-in.

  • #181343

    Kent Aitken
    Participant

    I think Mark Hammer (sorry for what I’m about to do) hit the nail on the head.

    There’s no transparency in “information availability,” but there is in understanding and usability.

    Open government will lead to transparency when, through its pursuit, we realize that its insufficient.

    And on the issue of talk of transparency, agree completely. But it’s largely because our spokespersons think they understand transparency and engagement, but haven’t gone nearly far enough down that rabbit hole.

    Great discussion.

  • #181341

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    I think Mark Hammer (sorry for what I’m about to do) hit the nail on the head.”

    Trust me Kent, the lineup on the GWB wasn’t nearly as long as the lineup of people who have said that in my lifetime. No charges will be laid. You’re free to go. 🙂

  • #181339

    Kent Aitken
    Participant

    Haha. I use the phrase frequently, and in my defence, had written that before I realized. “Oh boy, I’d better address that.”

    Mark, you’re in Ottawa too, I believe – are you with PSC?

  • #181337

    Mark Hammer
    Participant

    Guilty, and recently banished to Gatineau because of it. In which case I will rephrase what I wrote as:

    “Trust me Kent, the lineup on the 417 westbound wasn’t nearly as long as the lineup of people who have said that in my lifetime. No charges will be laid. You’re free to go. :-)”

  • #181335

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    Thanks for sharing that great story, Mark, which exemplifies the importance of being more transparent to build organizational and public trust — which can result in higher employee morale, greater productivity and more effectiveness, among other positive outcomes.

    Also, I love that quote:

    • whenever transparency gets up and leaves the table, even if only for a moment, fear, loathing, and paranoid conspiracy theories are more than happy to take its place.

    Words of wisdom, as usual.

  • #181333

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    Interesting take, Earl. Your valuable feedback is appreciated.

    As you point out, we need less talk and more walk…

  • #181331

    David B. Grinberg
    Participant

    Kent, having worked as an agency spokesman for many years, I can tell you that spokespersons are only empowered to be as transparent as their agency leadership allows them to be.

    Per my comment above to Dale:

    FYI, just in case you missed it, I penned a blog post in August that be of interest:

    More Transparency Needed for Federal Communicators to Build Public Trust

    • “Put simply, front-line federal communicators need more access to key data and information to bolster agency transparency and citizen engagement.”
    • “It’s important to reiterate that real transparency goes beyond words or principles. It must be systematically put into practice from the top-down and permeate all levels of communications policies and practices.”
  • #181329

    Christina Scheltema
    Participant

    There is a lot of transparancy talk in government, but we are not always clear about our goals, what we intend to gain, what type of public input is sought or desired, and what we can and will do with information provided by the public. All of these are important for transparancy to be more than just talk.

    In the course of my work, I’ve published numerous documents for comment, and have reviewed hundreds or thousands of public comments over the years. Sometimes, I’ve seen meaningful, useful comments, sometimes just letters or e-mails from people who want and need to vent. I’ve seen letter writing campaigns and petitions. All of these comments are considered in regulatory decisions, which are often restricted by statute, by deadlines, by precedent, by limited regulatory authority, or by political will.

    One final note – this post reflects my personal thoughts and ideas and not necessarily those of my Agency.

  • #181327

    Ramona Winkelbauer
    Participant

    I think transparency as a concept is a filter for what the individual brings to their interactions and their own experience/s of the entity in question (and often, citizens conflate all branches of government when thinking about transparency interaction/s. E.g., DMV’s of MD, VA and DC do not, for the most part, leave anyone pro-government, Federal or State or local!).

    City Level Transparency is ambiguous: e.g., if my experience of DC government transparency is their wholesale porting of the real estate records to the web, including purchase price of the property and the yearly taxes, citizens might want less transparency for their *neighbors* to have whilst still wanting the convenience of knowing how much to pay the night before their taxes are due. OTOH, if transparency involves DC Dept. of Parks and Recreation having a way for swimmers to know the temperature of their favorite pool before they leave the house, the same citizens might want more transparency. Further, if transparency involves having to go to fifteen separate links to call down large PDFs of documents that they find hard to scan for needed information, the same citizen might argue for “clearer” transparency….

    Ramona

    Speaking for self using examples from local government interactions.

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