Why Transparency Matters

May 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

Less than halfway into 2009, the word of the year is more than hype.

It currently is difficult to make it through a day in government circles without somebody talking about transparency. It was an ongoing theme in then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and it was conspicuously the first executive order signed by President Obama on January 21. But the word is something akin to a Rorschach test—everybody sees transparency very differently. Each person has very different ways of defining what transparency means and how it can be implemented.

Transparency can be valuable. One White House official joked with me that the Obama transparency initiative will be a success if it puts my blog out of business. I joked that I wasn’t worried. In fact, transparency can be incredibly powerful. In the end, it enables people to tap into the wisdom of crowds. And transparency is at the heart of Web 2.0 core beliefs: that all of us together are smarter than each of us individually. Therefore, transparency is elemental to government 2.0. These concepts feed and depend on each other. One cannot co-exist without the others.

But no person can overestimate the complexities involved in implementing government transparency. It is a dramatic shift in the way we think about information, particularly in government. We always have understood that information is powerful, but the understanding of the power of information led us to keep our information close. In fact, the theory of Web 2.0—and I would argue of transparency as well—is that information, in fact, becomes much more powerful when it is shared.

The theory of transparency is one of those ideas that goes against the grain, akin to when a car starts sliding on ice and its driver turns into the slide. In many ways, transparency is unnatural. I discussed some of the challenges in this column last month when talking about Jeff Jarvis’ book, What Would Google Do? One of the powerful parts of transparency is the acknowledgment that more wisdom exists outside any organization than it does inside an organization.

We are early in the process, and the initial steps need to focus on tasks that help the government do its job more effectively.

Many examples of transparency in action exist, and some of them are very small, yet so powerful. Earlier this year, when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was beginning the process of redesigning the agency’s pandemic flu Web site, the agency put a simple comment box on the top of the page that asked visitors what they thought about the site—what they liked, what they did not like and what could be improved. The department received more than 100 responses; but HHS continued its experiment transparently. The agency posted those comments as they came in, allowing citizens to see other people’s ideas and potentially spurring other ideas.

Other examples abound. One is the decision by the Bush administration to make its Presidential Management Agenda scorecard ratings public. Again, it sounds simple, but it is complex. By making the scorecard public, the Bush administration faced criticism from political opponents. But that was a pivotal decision. Most agencies would have preferred the infamous red-yellow-green scorecard not be made public, but making that information public did help agencies do their jobs more efficiently. Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not make public the data that made up the scorecard. That additional act of transparency would have been equally powerful.

The Obama administration has clearly made this a priority, and it is very focused on it. Beth Simone Noveck, who was a law professor at New York Law School and now spearheads the Obama transparency initiative at the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) Office of Science and Technology Policy, clearly is concentrating on it—and she understands the challenges agencies face given that she worked on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Community Patent Review project.

The new federal chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, also pushed transparency as the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia. Kundra pressed the district government to post video of meetings where government officials would talk about contracts with vendors—and those videos were posted on YouTube.

The economic stimulus package seems to offer opportunities for transparency, if it is done correctly. Most federal officials understand and agree with the ideas about how to enable transparency. However, they are very concerned about how to arrive at that end point.

It would be enormously powerful—and transparent—if officials were to lay out the challenges in a public way. They could have a public meeting to solicit ideas and post it on YouTube. In fact, the OMB solicited ideas about how to accomplish the transparency initiative using a government-only wiki, OMB Max. It is an important first step, but there are ideas outside of the government itself. And, people want to help.

There are real opportunities right now to tap into the wisdom. I hope the Obama administration will take advantage of those opportunities.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Washington, D.C.’s Federal News Radio 1500 AM.


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