This week has seen some great examples of transparency in the Government arena, both in the US and the UK. The first, and arguably most high profile event, surrounded the new Obama Administration, and its aim to be the most transparent in the history of the United States.
This laudable aim forms part of President Obama’s vision of a more open, engaged and transparent Federal government, where the default position for information is public and online.
“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city…Transparency and rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” President Obama
The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.
President Obama also pledged to hold himself:
“to a new standard of openness. Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution.”
Along with this President Obama asked agencies to use tools that make the government transparent, collaborative, and transparent. These tools can be wikis, government databases, blogs etc. but the overriding principle is the open and free access to public information in order to create a more dynamic and active participatory democracy.
President Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency outlines how Government should be transparent, participatory and collaborative. To foster collaboration, however, their must be a transparent environment amenable to participation and discussion. The memorandum states:
Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.
An example of this kind of collaboration can be seen with Fedspending.org and USASpending.gov. OMBWatch provided their technology to the Federal Government to create USASpending.gov quickly and at a lower cost than would otherwise have been possible. Such collaboration has the potential to reduce costs and allow for innovations and ideas to quickly become reality. The Federal Government should make greater use of expertise from the private/non-profit sector to jointly develop transparent platforms for civic engagement. This memorandum should allow collaboration of this kind to flourish and become easier throughout the course of this Administration.
The are many organizations facilitating transparency in civic life. The Sunshine Review blog highlights some of the online resources which can be considered as models for transforming how the public consumes Government related information. The sites highlighted include:
- Pork Page! – Contains many online resources dealing with pork barrel politics
- The Votes sites – MichiganVotes.org, PennsylvaniaVotes.org and others provide an easy interface to check on legislation, elected officials, issues, voting records and more.
- Sunshine on Schools – Contains budget data for North Dakota’s K-12 schools
- SchoolBoardTransparency.org – provides insight into on Pennsylvania’s school board-union contract negotiations.
- County spending – Transparency in County spending, examples include Collin County, Texas and DuPage County, Illinois.
- Center for Fiscal Accountability website – Contains information on the latest transparency news
- OMBWatch – Contains a list of federal transparency recommendations – from Organisations and Individuals – to implement in his first 100 days in office.
- ReadTheStimulus.org – As the site suggests, “$850 Billion, 334 pages, and counting… somebody needs to read it!”. The site allows people to comment on various paragraphs in the bill, thus allowing for a debate on very specific details of the text.
- Citizens Against Government Waste – provides details on national and state ‘pork-barrel- spending.
- SunshineReview.org – “collects and shares information about government transparency, openness and accountability at the state and local level.’
Additional transparency sites include:
- Fedspending.org – created by OMBwatch to provide information on federal contracts/grants. The Federal government version is at USAspending.gov.
- Sunlight Foundation – aims to use the ” power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens.” It facilitates and supports many projects including Earmark Watch and Public Markup.
There are obviously lots other transparency initiatives ongoing at a more local level, but a prominent case emerged this week in the UK regarding MP expenses. The Government had planned to exempt MPs’ expenses details from the UK Freedom of Information Act. This provoked organizations such as mySociety to launch campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to overturn the plan.
In the end, the vote was cancelled by the government with the effect that plans to issue 1.2m receipts for MPs’ expenses over the past three years are likely to go ahead within weeks.
Tom Steinberg wrote on the mySociety blog about how the cancellation of the vote on MPs’ expenses was:
a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works.
The transparency movement, both in the United States and the UK, highlights the public demand for accountability in how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Whether it relates to Government bailouts or MP expenses, non-profits and others are actively using social software tools, and the crowdsourcing potential of the Internet to promote civic engagement and public debate. The web is opening up our democracy through increasing society’s exceptions on the openness and accountability of elected officials.
Trust the people
Governments around the world need to acknowledge that Trust is what allows them exist, and for digital natives this must be exemplified by online access to contextual information relating to decision making. Concealing information creates an impression of mistrust and breeds suspicion. Placing information such as voting records, expenses, gifts received and meeting details in public domain, allows the public more context in which to judge the motivations and decisions of elected officials.
The public domain is online, any any transparency initiatives must use this as the default medium in which to present information. It’s not just acceptable, however, to place documents online in PDF or propriety formats. Rather transparency means online in an open and accessible format, allowing for data to be easily searched and queried e.g. xml. Easy and accessible access to information, allows for a more informed and educated civic debate contributing to the health of every democracy.