Jul 21 2009

Transparent Success?

For IT, achieving transparency initiatives hinges on a handful of key elements.

The prospect of greatly increased transparency and higher levels of participation by citizens in the process of government signals a significant transformation — if it can be achieved.

Like most change, it will involve overcoming resistance to change as well as mitigation of unintended consequences.

From the perspective of the IT organizations in agencies, here are four intrinsic keys to success:

ONE: Support data and information access.

This must extend beyond the transmission of data and include support targeted at ensuring that citizens understand the data, how agencies collected it and what they use it for now and into the future. This will create a demand for support that exceeds current requirements. Providing sufficient support will be important in improving understanding and in demonstrating that transparency and openness are worthwhile.

TWO: Set the right pace for introducing new data and access.

The pace should be aggressive, but should not exceed the public’s capacity to absorb new information, the government’s capacity to support citizen access and the overall capacity of all involved to deal with the consequences. Like any transformation, the pace of change needs to be appropriately modulated to ensure an appropriate equilibrium can be maintained.

THREE: Ensure appropriate security for the data, access to it and management of it.

This probably goes without saying. But it is important that the sources of data be protected against corruption; it is also important that the sanctity of individual access be considered as a privacy matter and protected as well.

FOUR: Create a plan for dealing with unintended consequences.

Such consequences will likely be numerous. One example occurred recently with the online forum Open Government Dialogue. The intent of the forum is to foster ideas for improving transparency of government operations and data. But the discussion moved off-track when a number of participants focused their posts on President Obama’s birth certificate. This incident clearly raises a conundrum for the government as it tests the use of social media tools to engage the public: Is it possible to conduct an open online dialogue that is reasonably free from off-topic political agendas?

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.