Government Transparency: Privacy Please?

A zone of privacy must exist in the world of transparent government.
by | May 3, 2011

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

What better way is there to discuss and share ideas about open government than at a loosely-scheduled weekend "unconference" called TransparencyCamp? At the fourth annual TCamp, held this past weekend, more than 250 tech entrepreneurs, journalists, government employees and nonprofit reps gathered near Washington, D.C., to talk about increasing government transparency online.

"When we held our first TransparencyCamp in 2009, we were very starry-eyed about the possibilities," said Sunlight Co-Founder and Executive Director Ellen Miller in her opening remarks. But just a few years later, those dedicated to open government realized the task was tougher and more complicated than originally anticipated.

In a couple of sessions I attended, some campers -- and even some session leaders -- did not want their input to be on the record. One camper even left a session when my editor and I introduced ourselves.

Off-the-record requests? At a transparency unconference? Miller says there are valid and logical reasons for such privacy, even in the realm of transparency.

"I can understand why if you work for government, or if you're one of the international visitors who's been pursued by the police for his activities, [you] would want to be off the record," she says. "I think that's a person's personal prerogative to choose to come and give information, but keep what he or she says in private."

The government people in attendance, she says, may very well want to remain off the record because they're participating as individuals -- not as representatives of their agencies or departments. As such, they wouldn't want the comments they made attributed to their particular agency when what they've said is a personal viewpoint. "We want to give officials a place to sound out ideas, explain things, ask for solutions, and not feel like everything they're saying and deliberating on is on the record," Miller says. "I think that's perfectly acceptable."

Personal privacy, especially how to handle confidential data, is a big concern. One of the sessions we attended addressed how an agency or department -- especially those involving health and education -- can keep data accessible while protecting sensitive, private information like student performance or AIDS cases.

"We don't want to freak everyone out and say, 'We want all this data to be open,'" says Kathryn Pettit, TCamp session leader and co-director of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP), a project which uses data to drive local policymaking. "Standards and best practices [must work] in ways that respect the privacy and confidentiality of the data, [while] at the same time get the information out about which areas have the highest teen pregnancy rates."

How does a government agency determine what's appropriate to share and what should be kept private?  Pettit says that while releasing raw data is the first step, transparency cannot be achieved by governments alone. "We often need intermediaries to evaluate the quality of the data and translate the numbers into information." NNIP local partners, for instance, negotiate to receive data from local government agencies -- with confidentiality protections when appropriate. "NNIP local partners clean the data, create meaningful indicators, and then work with nonprofits, resident groups, and often governments themselves to use the information for planning, advocacy and decision-making," she says.

Americans often fear the government possessing too much of their personal information. Yet this session's TCampers raised the point that private companies and the credit reporting agencies already have much of this information -- far more than the government has, some argue. "The credit reporting agencies have a huge affect on your life -- to buy a car, rent an apartment, buy a home," one camper said. "This is a terrible formulation."

Yet citizens' concern about how much data the private sector has seems to be lacking, considering that people even give private companies their information. (Just think of people who overshare on social media platforms.) "I think that [the private sector's data] has profoundly more of an impact than what our city or town might have," Pettit says.

Generally speaking, the Sunlight Foundation (which produces TCamp) believes that in the world of transparency, there can be a zone of privacy, Miller says. Congress, for example, should be able to deliberate in private on pieces of legislation, such as the health-care bill, as long as the public has an opportunity to review and comment on that legislation. "You have to be practical about your politics," she says.


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