Increase Transparency and Efficiency in Government

How? Foster transparency initiatives that make data actionable.
March 30, 2011 AT 11:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

A recent Aspen Institute meeting in Washington, D.C., provided a glimpse into the converging and colliding circles of thought around government transparency and citizen engagement.

The occasion was the presentation of two white papers commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation(Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age and Government Transparency: Six Strategies for More Open and Participatory Government), and was attended by participants as diverse as included local reformers, federal officials, watchdogs, academics, technology policy figures, funders, and privacy and transparency advocates.

The topic: Government is moving toward transparency in fits and starts, and no one seems able to point out key tools that will accelerate the process. Absent is a forum where we can systematically address thorny technical issues, like the impact of privacy laws and concerns about transparency advances, or grapple with on-the-ground obstacles to increased transparency and higher quality web presence in government, such as a culture of secrecy, resistance by public officials or lack of financial and technical resources.

Meanwhile, the public sector as a whole is falling farther and farther behind the private sector in adopting the technological solutions available now, like private-sector applications and open-source software. The pace-setters are thinking about how to move from "push," (government making information available) to "pull," (citizens getting what they want, when they want it). Yet Gary Bass, head of the nonprofit research and advocacy organization OMB Watch, observed that the reality on the ground is much more primitive.

Barriers to transparency may vary by size and level of government, and what looks like an advantage to one may play as a barrier to another. Small local governments lack resources and technical assets, but the presentation of civic information -- within limits -- is much more straightforward. Big, sophisticated governments have the resources, but reformers are hampered by bureaucracies that prefer to dwell in the dark.

A despairing moment arose when one experienced former local technology officer offered his ingredients for breaking through to transparency: a champion willing to take risks, a vision that is actionable and a will to make it happen. The secret to sustained success, he said, is a community ecosystem that applauds and supports the reformers. The universal reaction from the participants: If this change toward transparency requires a champion, it will never grow to significant scale.

But perhaps we should consider the inverse notion: Build the demand first in order to make transparency the safe political ground for elected officials. The market and demand for public records is growing as software exponentially increases the capacity for citizen interpretation and analysis.

Elected and appointed officials are gradually recognizing that copy-machine costs and lengthy delays for release of public records are counterproductive. Some may take the step New Jersey has, creating YourMoney.NJ, a transparency web site that is gradually adding open public records. This week's addition is comprehensive property valuation and tax data. Meanwhile, pension payrolls -- a really hot topic in a state with an $89 billion unfunded liability -- have been accessible for months.

Governments can also capitalize on the ingenuity and intellectual energy of the software universe, and even make it fun: New York City's DataMine, its portal for public data sources, has sponsored two competitions for use of data sets. Enthusiasm is building in Philadelphia around a model inspired by London's Datastore, which provides commentary that will show people "inspirational" uses that stimulates new ideas for data interpretation, explores needs and interests among users and suggests unusual collaborations. Tapping graphic designers as well as programmers provides translations that can energize whole new markets.

More than opening up data, these initiatives are aimed at building a community of users that can make data actionable, not just accessible -- moving the mission beyond open data for data's sake to create tools that are helpful and illuminating, motivate action and increase transparency and efficiency in government.