Author: Wayne Moses Burke

Transparency is Dead. Long Live Transparency.

As sovereign power passes to the new king upon the death of the old, so do I propose that Ellen Miller’s proclamation that “the drive for data transparency has stalled” [Speech video 0:49 ] yields a pursuit for transparency and open government that is filled with renewed vigor – and new perspectives.

While I agree that enshrining mandates for data transparency and open government principles in law would be the easy way to ensure that they continue in perpetuity, I don’t believe that it’s the best way to forward the movement.

In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that open government will only be accomplished by:

  1. Relegating transparency to an equal position with participation and collaboration.
  2. Building civic responsibility in citizens.
  3. Changing government culture.

Relegating transparency

Transparency has enjoyed a special (and dominant) place in the open government movement such that I feel as though I speak sacrilege when I say it is a false god. Now don’t get me wrong, I love transparency and completely agree that it is a necessity for open government. But transparency alone is not enough.

I say it’s a false god because the real goal is accountability. Transparency is only the lens through which accountability can be determined. Once data is verified, or a transgression is uncovered in the data, what do we do? Well today, we announce it publicly and expect the appropriate agency to respond out of fear and embarrassment.

There has to be a better way!

Enter participation and collaboration. How nice would it be if every time a transgression was discovered, there was a reliable way to not only ensure that the information could get to the people within government that could fix it (participation); but in addition, if the various offices and individuals that were responsible had the ability to work together to actually solve the problem (collaboration).

Sounds kinda like a fairy tale or a children’s story, doesn’t it?

But I believe that is what we’re pursuing – we don’t want a government that we can monitor, we want a government that we can monitor and that’s responsive to our needs and input as citizens.

Building civic responsibility

The Open Government movement has largely been focused on what all these cool new technologies are enabling – and that makes perfect sense. In order to utilize any tool, you have to understand it first; and in order to understand it, you have to play with it. We’ve been doing that.

Now however, we seem to have moved to another plateau. There are a lot of conversations about what the goal of the movement actually is. For me, it’s about a sea change in the relationship between citizens and government in the United States of America. I grew up with no concern for, nor belief in anything the federal government or any representatives said or did. Unfortunately, this is more the norm than the exception today.

I see the Open Government movement as a panacea for the ills of our current government system. The technology creates the possibility of a government like the one taught in our childhood civics classes – the American Dream: all people are equal and live in a true meritocracy that is fairly governed by a system that perfectly balances service provision and minimal interference in the lives of its citizens, enabling each and every one to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in whatever way they choose to define that.

As soon as I realized that this fantasy is driving my involvement in the movement, I also saw a flaw in the fantasy. Where is civic responsibility in this idyllic vision we were raised with? Does the average American want to sign up for selective service, pay taxes, serve on a jury, vote, or even serve as a representative in government? Of course not! We’re all good with the life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness-greatest-country-in-the-world thing, but you can keep the rest of it – thanks, but I’ve got other things to do.

Now, you and I can pretend that this isn’t part of what we do. We work on technology implementation and adoption. We’re revolutionizing government. Right?

Unfortunately, a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government isn’t worth much if no one looks at the data, participates, or collaborates with it! If you haven’t realized this yet, open government is actually going to add more civic responsibility to an already jaded and apathetic citizenry. What are we going to do about that?

Oh. And don’t fool yourself that there will always be watchdog groups that are passionate about specific issues. These groups are merely a proxy for citizens, and their legitimacy rests on being able to engage a broad constituency.

To make a long story short, if you’re working in this space and your strategic plan doesn’t include some means of empowering, impassioning, or educating citizens on why they should care, you’re missing something.

Changing government culture

I simply don’t believe that mandating open government will result in open government. Granted, without President Obama creating the climate in which change can occur, it would be much more difficult than it is currently, but that has already happened. The political cover necessary for drastic change has been laid out.

What is required is the laborious process of changing government culture. I will not claim to be an expert on agency open government plans, but I was looking at NASA‘s the other day and was pleasantly surprised by their three flagship initiatives: Policy, Technology, and Culture. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? If you can change those three things, you can successfully implement open government internally. I do think there is an order that needs to be followed here however (and you’ll notice that culture gets the limelight):

  1. Technology needs to be understood. I’m not going to talk much about this because this is mostly what we’ve all been doing so far. Nonetheless, technology creates opportunities and in order to leverage them, you need to understand how it works and what it’s capable of.
  2. Culture needs to change. The first step is figuring out what the change is that you’re trying to bring to fruition (I think the Open Government movement’s current introspection that I referenced in the previous section is a form of this). In keeping with the principles of the movement, it’s probably good to do this in a way that is transparent, participatory, and collaborative – with the civil servants that will be directly affected as well as all stakeholders, be they at other agencies, organizations, or actual citizens. There is no better way to lead than by example. The exciting part of this is that the process itself will also set the change in motion. (for more detailed cultural change hints, Lovisa Williams recently wrote a great post about effective culture change within an agency called The Elephant of Change).
  3. Policies will need to change to support the new technologies and culture. That is their job after all – to provide a structure that produces reliably consistent results. I would encourage policy changes to be liberal when providing more freedoms and very conservative when creating restrictions. This is a time for trial and error, and (where appropriate) the mantra of ‘fail early, fail often’ will actually help to shorten the transition period. At that point, it will be possible to create intelligent policies that are crafted not only with the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, but also with all of the benefits that the open government movement will have brought to government.

In my estimation then, the key to successful Open Government implementation is a focus on changing the culture of your agency or department or office to be transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Exactly what that means in your specific case is where the complexity lies, and most likely you’ll get it at least partly wrong the first couple of times you try to figure it out. It doesn’t matter – mitigate the risks, fail where you can afford to, and move on. This is how transitions work, and if we are proactive about our intentions, maybe we can build that idyllic country that we grew up believing in – although with responsible and engaged citizens that make it even better and ensure its longevity!