Creating See-Through Government

Transparency and accountability are more important than ever. There are steps managers should take to achieve those goals.
October 6, 2009
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Over the past century, as societies have grown more complex, so have problems of government transparency and accountability. The present economic crisis serves to exacerbate the public's longstanding anxieties and mistrust.

Fortunately, information infrastructures have matured to the point where leading governments are exploring ever-more-accessible options for increasing transparency and accountability. Web 2.0 and "cloud" tools, for instance, continue to make information sharing and collaboration easier and better.

While any transparency initiative will almost certainly involve technology, it will fail if conceived and implemented as a "technology" project. It will require, above all, committed leadership to engage not just the technology community but also general managers and, most importantly, government political leaders and overseers.

Public officials or managers looking to design successful transparency initiatives should first assess their degree of commitment and then seek private, candid conversations with those who have organized similar endeavors elsewhere. Certain opportunities to improve transparency and accountability may not be ripe for all settings, but they're out there, and worth considering.

The four steps outlined here represent an exploratory leading edge -- they are not yet widely implemented. Still, they are worth your attention. Transparency and accountability are essential for trust, and trust is essential for good governance.

1. Release data in computer-readable form. Data is the essence of transparency, and governments have loads of it. Until recently, however, sharing data was almost completely internal, as in efforts like New York City's CompStat, for policing, and similar performance-measurement projects. Now, projects like the District of Columbia's Data Feeds program and the new and efforts of the Obama administration, make it policy to release all data in computer-readable form. Data is only withheld for strong privacy and/or security reasons. The goal in releasing data is not only to make services more efficient through information sharing but also to demonstrate government's willingness to be transparent.

2. Collaborate visibly and with more internal and external stakeholders. To be useful, data must be analyzed and discussed. Web 2.0 tools make it easier for people inside and outside government to contribute to the conversations that inform government decision-making. Blogs, wikis, and the like contain lasting information that is easily created and easily searched. Intellipedia, Diplopedia and the Peer-to-Patent project are all examples of transparent collaboration and demonstrate how this potential is being pursued.

3. Evolve technology standards to support openness for the future. Some 35 years ago the standard that radically opened up information sharing was TCP/IP, followed eventually by HTML. As the Web moves towards more video and wireless information, new technologies for sharing information are evolving to support larger economies of scope and scale. In order for the next round of innovation to expand openness, however, rather than constrict it, we must properly balance standards for privacy and security and update concepts of net neutrality to avoid creating monopoly choke points. Development of agreed-upon standards -- a task largely overlooked -- may soon become the most important determinant in our ability to share the information needed for transparency and accountability.

4. Create organizations that foster transparency. Releasing data, fostering collaboration, and setting standards -- the steps noted above -- will not happen in a day. Success will require sustained budgets, staff and legal authority. While the financial costs will not be substantial, we will need new groups to support this work. Consider more institutions like Baltimore's CitiStat (to analyze city data), or the efforts supporting issue analysis by citizens panels of Scandinavian countries, and/or federal-state-local collaboration for new standards for the continually evolving internet "cloud." The budget process -- the most important policy process of government -- needs to be redesigned to support the work outlined above and the key goals of transparency and accountability.

Mistrust of government is a huge problem that has grown persistently worse as societies become more complex. Fortunately, new technologies for information sharing are making transparency and accountability more feasible. Are you already on the transparency/accountability leading edge? Should you be?