The Challenges of Transparency for Government

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset.”

– President Barack Obama

An interesting discussion to have is what is driving government to be more open and transparent. Is being more open occurring out of necessity by government due to the fiscal climate? With such limited resources, government is being forced to be more open, transparent and collaborate across agencies. Or is a more open government developing because of increasing pressures from citizens? There is a pressure from citizens and a desire for a more connected government that can use technology to improve government operations.

The challenge to these questions is that for the federal government “open” can mean multiple things to agencies. There are complex questions that relate to government transparency – how can we measure transparency? What are the requirements that make an agency transparent? How do we define transparency? What level of transparency is appropriate? The answers to those questions likely are different across agencies, so being “open” can have different meanings to various agencies and certainly to citizens.

There are many different ways to try and tackle transparency, one way is the releasing of data sets that government collects. This can be done in a variety of different ways – if it is releasing data in raw form for citizens or taking a more structured approach and providing limit data with key insights. Typically, this all depends on the agency’s mission and varying internal processes for transparency. Other transparency efforts include allowing citizens to visualize data on maps, mobile applications, and improved customer service by providing the right information that is easily accessible.

Since Obama came into office, government has launched numerous campaigns to be more transparent and open. Obama has received mixed reviews in how transparent his administration has been. Needless to say, the road he laid out for transparency with his Open Government Initiative was quite ambitious, with his desire to be the most transparent administration in history. If you’re interested in learning more about Obama and all of his transparency programs – take a look at a report from GSA, which gives him a lukewarm (at best) grade on his transparency initiatives. The report shows that it is clear that the speed at which technology moves far exceeds our ability to develop adequate performance measures and time for workplace culture to adapt.

As we’ve discussed, a key challenge is to define an overarching term for transparency, as each agency will measure and define transparency differently so:

How can agencies effectively measure and define transparency in their agency?

This post is brought to you by the GovLoop Communications & Citizen Engagement Council. The mission of this council is to provide you with information and resources to help improve government. Visit the GovLoop Communications and Citizen Engagement Council to learn more.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

David Dejewski

I once worked down the hall from two women who were each about 10 years my senior, equal to me in rank, and philosophically “old school” from my perspective. I was a big proponent for Transparency in government. They weren’t so excited about it. I met with them often as colleagues and used those opportunities to challenge them on this subject. My objective was to understand what I was missing & maybe craft a reasonable approach to Transparency that would either make them more comfortable with the idea, or turn me into a defender of the status quo.

I was never convinced that Transparency can’t work, but I did learn a thing or two about their perspective. They basically viewed Transparency as a threat. Workload was already unsustainable. Competition for resources was fierce. And the boss had done (and was still doing) some stupid things – that would never survive a spot light.

These two women attacked the Transparency idea with the same passion one might expect from a worker bee defending their queen. They seemed to honestly believe that they were nobly protecting their leader. While they admitted in confidence (during our occasional cease fires), that there was nonsense going on that would, at best, not serve the organization in the long run, and at worst, harm the organization down the road – neither of them could step away form their short term defensive positions long enough to allow Transparency (or Transformation) a toe hold.

They were right from the perspective that Transparency would make things worse before they got better. Political allies would become enemies. Our organization was in a number of power struggles and often placated rivals with trivial issues – shielding them from seeing the issues “we” thought were important. By throwing rivals bones to chew on, they stayed away from the “real” issues. My organization had an elaborate process dedicated to this purpose – pomp and circumstance, loads of meetings that were little more than hot air producing time wasters, complex secret tribal meetings that kept the real agenda on track and outsiders chasing rabbits…

If that pain wasn’t bad enough, the volume of Congressional inquiries would go up. Many people, both deserving and not deserving would suffer embarrassment and possibly worse. Budgets would be cut into, and oversight would have made life unpleasant for everyone.

At the time, I looked at the situation like the organizational equivalent of a late Friday night after an out-of-control bender. There we stood, hunched over the toilet and needing to puke. No one wanted to puke, so those opposed fought it off with everything they had. If they just let it go, they’d feel better in the morning, I thought. I never found out.

I think we (Transparency advocates) need to be sensitive to the pain that transparency can bring to an organization. I still believe it is necessary, but few organizations have done it effectively and emerged ready to fight another day. There just aren’t a lot of good examples to follow & no one wants to risk this kind of pain alone. Organizations are sort of standing around – fighting the need for Transparency with everything they’ve got.

Inevitable increases in budget pressure will force organizations to eventually come to the point where they are willing to close inefficient business operations and embrace things like Web 2.0, self service, and a role as an enabler of self service vs the one providing the service. Transparency is an important part of our future.

Unless we can craft a brilliant strategy that makes Transparency “safe” to do, it may not really happen until the majority of Transparency wary bureaucrats have executed some form of exit strategy.

Pat Fiorenza

Thanks for your comments, David. Lots of really interesting insights and you gave a perfect example of some of the challenges I was talking about transparency in my post. It’s interesting how defensive your colleagues got, and it sounds like they where almost trained NOT to speak up and bring to light elements that may be dysfunctional at the agency. It’s tough scenario to be in. Your story makes me believe that transparency needs to come from the top. Leaders need to let employees know that it’s ok to speak up and challenge the status quo. It’s got to be tough when you are a mid-level, looking to advance and come across information that could jeopardize your job, and your organizations reputation. It takes a unique skill to be able to bring those issues to light and actually transform an organization. I would love to hear some examples as well. I’m in the camp that people generally know the right thing to do, but if management sets up a dysfunctional organization – people just get stuck. Thanks for commenting.