A couple weeks ago, I attended the Mercatus Center’s 10th annual ceremony releasing their assessment of how transparent agencies were in reporting their performance via their annually-required performance report under the Government Performance and Results Act. It made me think about how far the whole transparency movement has come.
Old-Style Transparency. Federal agencies have been required to report performance information for a decade. Several organizations, such as the Association for Government Accountants and the Mercatus Center, have been assessing the quality of these reports. There’s been a consistent theme in their assessments over the past decade that, while there is a steady supply of performance information, that it is not being used to make decisions and the reports are not being widely read.
Traditionally, performance reporting has been seen as a top-down exercise, with an agency head annually collecting, assessing, and reporting on his or her agency’s performance to the Congress and the public. This approach to government transparency — reporting its performance to the public — has increased dramatically over the past 15 years via annual performance plans, annual performance reports, annual financial reports, scorecards on how well programs were performing, and scorecards on agency management capacity.
New-Style Transparency. The Obama Administration seems to have raised the bar and shifted the focus on what constitutes “transparency.” This new world is reflected in several initiatives:
- USASpending.gov, a website where all agencies must post their grant and contract spending. This was enacted into law under President Bush, but the law was co-sponsored by then-Senator Obama.
- Recovery.gov, a website where all Recovery Act spending and results are to be posted publicly.
- Data.gov, a planned website where raw federal data sets (e.g., from the Federal Register, Census, EPA, etc.) will be posted to allow public users the ability to perform their own analyses and create their own uses for the information.
In each of these cases, the data is far more immediate. It isn’t a pre-digested end-of-year report. It is far more interactive, and allows both employee and citizen engagement around the interpretation and use of the data. It takes data and its analysis out of the hands of experts and puts it into the hands of line managers and citizens.
In a way, the new transparency trend runs counter to conventional wisdom, which recommends a small number of measures, digested and interpreted for simplistic understanding. It means less centralized data interpretation. It is far more decentralized in terms of data availability and allows individuals the ability to conduct their own analyses and come to their own conclusions.
Challenges to Hierarchy. But what are the implications of this new-style transparency? By making data more widely available – even if only within the government – it will empower a wide range of users to more routinely make fact-based decisions. This has the effect of pushing analysis and decision-making down to the front-line instead of staff offices. This could be the beginning of a new performance agenda, which author W. David Stephenson calls “Democratizing Data.” Support for making such data available more broadly to the public is being pushed by advocacy groups such as the Sunlight Foundation.
In addition, there will be questions raised by professional analysts about data quality and the quality of data analysis. However, Intuit and Wikipedia use this approach to gain the “wisdom of crowds” (also sometimes called “crowd sourcing”) in their businesses and the quality and accuracy of the information tends to be equivalent to that produced by professional analysts. In any case, this may be the beginning of a new accountability structure for networked government.