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Vote for Government Transparency

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Voting is now open for who you think should win Google’s Project 10^100 Prize. Google launched the program a year ago and is committed to awarding $10 million in prizes. More than 150,000 ideas have been submitted in 25 languages. These have been grouped into 16 overall themes, and now they’ve turned to crowdsourcing, as a mechanism to find the most worthy themes. The project’s advisory board will then settle on five projects, and Google will ask companies or organizations to submit a request for proposal in these areas. Those who impress the board will then receive the money. Some of the 16 themes include:

  • Promote health monitoring and data analysis
  • Help social entrepreneurs drive change
  • Provide quality education to African students
  • Collect and organize the world’s urban data
  • Make educational content available online for free
  • Make government more transparent

The theme I’m most interested in, however, is making government more transparent. It’s what I’ve voted for and you can too before 8th October.

Make government more transparent

The theme around government transparency is something with many countries have been experimenting with over the past year. Civic organisations and governments in countries such as the US, UK, Germany, Australia, Netherlands and Sweden have been, or are in the process of, creating open-data catalogues for public consumption. Public information belongs to the Public. It’s it’s make available in easily accessible formats, people will find ways of using it productively e.g. through creating government apps (as San Francisco done).

Google have identified some of the suggestions that inspired this theme. They include:

  • Create a “govwatch” program that allows people to enter in geographic and other info and get back information about bills/laws that affect them
    Examples of applications exemplifying these theme are already available. ThisWeKnow allows citizens to easily find government data about their community. It was created as part of Sunlight’s Apps for America 2 competition. Another application resulting from this competition is Govpulse. It is based on the official journal of the federal government of the United States. Through this citizens can find any kind of proposal, notification, or solicitation for data that a federal agency puts out. Both these sites can be accessed via a ZIP code, so as to provide local information relevant to communities. Along with these apps, Recovery.gov’s new mapping tools, and the increasing number of transparency websites are allowing citizens to see different kinds of spending data relevant to their communities.
  • Empower individual voters with both online, real-time data on their political representatives’ activity, and tools to analyze, engage and influence outcomes
    Some sites are already available that enable citizens to easily interact with their representatives through various communications platforms. Sites such as 2Gov.org, TweetCongress/Europatweets/Tweetminister, and HearFromYourMP are all examples of civic initiatives providing citizens with easily accessible platforms in which to contact their elected representatives and monitor their activities. While participation on Twitter does not necessarily translate into citizen engagement – as exemplified through research on Congressional use of Twitter – at least mechanisms such as trending topics and word clouds give an indication of their activity and views on particular issues.
  • Increase the transparency of laws, eliminate duplicate ones and communicate them better to affected citizens
    Enabling citizens to comment and read legislation before it is passed into law is an important tool towards ensuring civic debate can influence the legislative process. Creating tools to easily allow citizens to read and cite legislation should not solely be the responsibility of non-governmental organisations. Initiatives such as OpenCongress, TheyWorkForYou and the Citability should be integral tools within government to ensure the activities of legislatures are communicated to citizens. Governments should embrace citizen access to and commenting of legislative documents, as a means of developing a healthy environment of civic debate. The controversy and misrepresentation over what was, and what was not, included in the recent US Healthcare bill H.R.3200 highlighted how rumors can triumph over facts, when information is not widely accessible.
  • Share information on how municipalities and states use public funds
  • There are already many US local transparency sites providing information on local spending data e.g. SeeThroughNY, Open.Virginia.gov and ReportingTransparency.ca.gov.

    The US Federal government is leading the way with sites such as USASpending.gov and Recovery.gov. These provide overviews of where, and to whom Government is allocating contracts and grants. While these sites need improving, their comprehensive nature is at least an example of how information relating to federal spending can be made accessible by government. These sites were created as per legislation – Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act 2006 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 – but they  nevertheless represent an understanding that transparency and openness are a necessary part of reducing cynicism towards of government spending. Legislation, however, should not be required for the provision of such transparency. The prevailing orthodoxy of data as a solely government asset needs to change. Public information should not be seen as the preserve of the bureaucracy, but rather as a citizen entitlement.

Information Needs

The  goal of making government more transparent also forms one of the recommendations from the recent Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. It’s recommendation is to:

Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.

As part of this recommendation it believes legislation should be used to ensure openness applies to all public bodies and government contracts. Along with this meetings, legislative bodies and court proceedings should be transparent:

The public’s business should be done in public. Open-meetings laws should require that all public agencies conduct their deliberations and take their actions openly.  The public should be able to witness and participate in the process of governing.  If possible, governments should allow citizens to participate in hearings or other fact-gathering processes electronically.

At every level, legislative bodies should operate with genuine transparency.  Members of the public should be able to track and comment upon successive versions of proposed statutes and ordinances, whether federal, state, or local. Except in genuine emergencies, legislators should not vote on proposals that have not had public vetting with a meaningful opportunity for public comment.

Public trust in the judicial system likewise requires open courtrooms.  In criminal and civil matters, any closing of proceedings or sealing of records should meet a high standard in terms of the public interests protected. Court proceedings, particularly at the appellate level, should be open to cameras.

Similar recommendations were made in last year’s Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-T0-Know Agenda, which provides many significant ideas for improving transparency in government.

US transparency directive as a template

In the US, the Office of Management and Budget is due to issue a long-awaited government directive on Transparency and Openness across government. This directive will be the result of a three-part consultation with the public initiated by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Ideas and feedback were solicited from the public through online voting and wikis, before the recommendations were drafted.

The development of an Open Government policy should provide more guidance to federal, state and local government, in how they should make data available. This, along with the  National Association of State Chief Information Officers guidance, will provide effective advice for states and others on how to create transparency portals.

The Open Government directive and other guidance from the US can provide a template for other countries, in how the develope their transparency initiatives. Already, countries should as Australia appear to have learned from the US in how they are proceeding with their Government 2.0 initiatives. Their recent MashupAustralia competition, Gov 2.0 brainstorming site and Gov 2.0 issues consultation paper, are all initiatives that have been tried in other countries first:

When Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the US President announced the US Open Government initiative she said she wanted to be:
fully transparent in our work, participatory in soliciting your ideas and expertise, and collaborative in how we experiment together to use new tools and techniques for developing open government policy.
By following these tenets of openness, and learning from other government transparency initiatives, we can all make government transparency truly an idea that can change the world.
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