What Is Transparency?


I was speaking at a conference a few weeks ago and got the question “what is transparency?’  I remember I didn’t feel like I gave a good answer, but I can’t remember what I said.  So let’s try another run at it . . . . you’re welcome to add your comments, as well.

 The Obama Administration says it wants increased transparency and the President signed a directive to that effect.  People in agencies across the government are trying to come up with their interpretations.  Outside advocacy groups, such as the Sunlight Foundation, are offering their own interpretations.

 I remember being in a forum a few weeks ago and a federal official was showing a Powerpoint slide with some information on it, saying they were now far more transparent in how they do business. I asked if that presentation was (or would be) posted on their website or otherwise be available.  I got a blank stare. The answer was “no,” but that they were sharing it at all (orally) was seen by them as “transparency,” and that they were sharing the data internally among themselves was seen as a breakthrough.

 So there are clearly different perceptions as to what constitutes transparency.  This came up again on the White House’s recent Open Government Dialogue, which has been holding a “Brainstorming” session to collect ideas on how the President’s Open Government Directive should be crafted.  One commenter noted that how “transparency” is defined makes a difference: If it’s defined as creating trust among citizens (an outside-in approach to transmitting information) then this will be different than if it’s defined as creating accountability (an inside-out approach to transmitting information).  Of course, it’ll likely be a bit of both, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Open Government Directive winds up defining it. 

 Another post on the Brainstorming session, by Arian Ward, recommends “measures to track, report, and improve government transparency and openness.” While the post doesn’t define transparency explicitly, it does implicitly by offering examples of measures that should be collected.  The primary one is asking citizens their perception of openness in government! 

 Another post by Ward recommends a “whole systems approach” to transparency and openness.  This is intended to be principles-driven rather than a specific methodology. 

 By the way, you can join the discussion on this, starting June 3rd, on the White House site. 

 And a further note, the White House has launched a parallel initiative related to greater transparency in the regulatory development process.  That dialogue is ongoing via Regulations.gov Exchange through July 21st.  The goal is to get input on how to best revamp the governmentwide e-rulemaking website, www.regulations.gov to make it easier to use and to comment on.



One Response to “What Is Transparency?”

  1. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    For real transparency the Civil Service at the local level should join with their collaborators to make an assessment of the local level with all hands involved.This is some times referred to as a 360 degree assessment. This will allow everyone to look outward using common ground. Looking out together is the highest form of transparency.

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