Jul 29 2009

On a Clear Day

The administration's transparency agenda seeks to extend the data-driven view citizens have across the breadth of government.

During the presidential campaign, the Obama organization made open, participatory government a plank of its campaign platform and a differentiator as part of its “Change You Can Believe In” theme.

Now that President Obama has taken office, it’s appropriate to take a look at what is happening with respect to open government and the implications for federal IT.

A New Perspective

Traditionally, the political and career workforce that constitutes the Executive Branch has operated in an environment where most decision-making is invisible to the citizenry. It is almost a textbook example of a large bureaucratic organization at work — integrating experts with data, policy, processes and, of course, political influence. The system is large and complex, often slow to react and generally lacking in clarity of purpose, expectations and results. And although the federal government certainly does a number of quite extraordinary things — and has shown the capacity to rise to the occasion when necessary — the public mostly views agencies as inefficient and unresponsive.

The Obama administration recently published its management agenda, aptly titled “Building a High-Performing Government.” One of the six components directly addresses the policy shift toward open government: Transparency, Technology and Participatory Democracy. To paraphrase a bit, the strategy of this component involves:

Transparency: Federal information is a national asset to be shared with the citizens. The transparency that will result from access to information will promote accountability and greater understanding of what the government does and what it’s trying to achieve.

Technology: Government will use technology to provide citizens with improved access to information, and to solicit and incorporate feedback.

Participatory democracy: The result of increased access to government information will be greater interaction between citizens and government, which will promote and enable greater participation in the process of governing.

A simple comparison between traditional information access policies and those that are part of the administration’s new direction provides an understanding of the sharp contrast between where government has been and where it wants to go now.

In the near past, if you wanted information, you had to specifically ask for it. In response, the government would decide what it would (or could) release and then would charge you for it (through the Freedom of Information Act). The new plan seems to be that citizens own the information, which the government will push out aggressively using technology, while asking: What do you think about it, and will you share whatever implications you draw from it?

Photo: Elizabeth Hinshaw
"Clearly, in the right situation,
transparency works."

— Paul Wohlleben

Early Transparency in Action

Certainly, government has made information available over the years through access methods less onerous than FOIA. There is a lot of data in the public domain, in libraries, on websites, in reading rooms. During the mid-90s, I personally worked on a project to push out information at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The legacy process for improving environmental protection, stated simply, was to conduct science, issue regulations, monitor compliance, litigate and attempt to recover damages or force compliance through court order where abuses were found. What happened with some frequency was that the government received a judgment in its favor, but the defendant corporation had no ability to pay damages.

EPA collects a significant amount of data related to its monitoring of pollution releases and levels at regulated facilities. It houses most of that information in databases that are inaccessible to the outside world. Gradually and, as I recall, with some level of resistance, both nongovernment organizations and the government began to make data and software for accessing and understanding this information available. The early attempts saw state and federal agencies trying to download data and software over 300-baud modems; the intent was there, but not the technology.

I also can remember several meetings at which this new innovation, the “Internet,” was demonstrated using a primitive web browser called Mosaic. Though fairly featureless in retrospect, at the time the step-up in capability was frankly startling, and I vividly remember the excitement that simple demonstration stirred in almost everyone who saw it.

Subsequently, EPA has been a leader in providing the public access to data. Although most of the laws that require the legacy process described above remain in place, and compliance is still an important part of the approach, that access to data has become integrated into the core strategy of environmental protection. Informing concerned citizens regarding the sources of pollution and the potential health effects, and leveraging their energy and passion into political action at the local level, has proved at times to be a much more effective strategy for achieving results than a compliance process that sometimes only enriched the lawyers involved.

Clearly, in the right situation, transparency works.

Through its open-government initiative, the new administration wants to generate significantly higher levels of feedback and discussion between citizens and government than any of its predecessors have done. How will those communications be handled and supported? How will key points of discussion be incorporated into decision-making processes across government and within agencies? These are some basic questions for which no convenient answers are yet available. They will need to be addressed and the processes of government transformed to achieve the stated objectives.

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