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Transparency

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Thursday 12 January 2012

The Importance of Transparency - Redux

Since my guest post on the importance of transparency is no longer a live link, I'm re-publishing my blog post here:

The Key to Integrity

The major source of citizens’ dissatisfaction with political systems is the belief that politicians lack integrity. Integrity is fostered by a system that employs transparency, which is a requirement for accountability.

A Tool for Democratization

Transparency is a simple concept with a big payback: winning back the trust of the citizens and putting an end to corruption and special interests. The public distrusts leaders and policy makers, and the only way to increase trust in the system is by being open about what is taking place -- in order to have true accountability there must be transparency. As future and current leaders, (and supporters of leaders,) we must do what we can to move towards an open and accountable government.

Where We Stand

Transparency advocates have been demanding transparency for many years, but in 2008, on his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government mandating a policy of openness for Federal departments and agencies.

The Obama administration's policy of openness set the stage for states and numerous municipalities to follow suit. Happily, there are too many examples to list here, but in 2009 California's former Governor Schwarzenegger issued a memorandum of transparency, and San Francisco has had a Sunshine Ordinance since 1999.

Four Steps You Can Take Toward a More Transparent and Open Government

1. Most importantly, as you go forth to take office in your communities, states, and country, strive to serve in a transparent and open manner. When you are confronted with a decision, ask yourself whether you would be comfortable being open about your choice. If the answer is no, think long and hard about whether it's the right choice. If you are transparent, your opponents may disagree with your choices, but they won't be able to catch you off-guard by bringing up something you hoped they wouldn't find.

2. You can demand transparency and openness from the candidates you support, your elected officials and our party leaders.

3. Please join me and over 8,000 others in signing the online pledge to hold public officials accountable for being open and transparent at Public = Online, a non-partisan project of the Sunlight Foundation.

4. Lastly, you can support or establish a sunshine ordinance in your county, city or state.

Resources

The Sunlight Foundation is a great place to start for Federal transparency information. They always have interesting projects in the works. The Obama Administration's home page for federal transparency efforts also has good information. AnalyzeThe.US is an application with datasets that allows anyone to analyze information on key individuals, organizations and activities. Transparency International - USA Chapter

Wednesday 23 February 2011

The Importance of Transparency

Read about transparency as it pertains to people who hold, or aspire to hold, elected office in my guest post for Emerge America's blog. Also included are four steps you can take toward a more transparent and open government.

Emerge America is an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office. The United States currently ranks #84 in the world for women in elected office (behind China and Pakistan). Emerge has chapters in nine states. Look for one near you!

Thursday 9 December 2010

White House Designing Democracy

Yesterday the White House announced a new concept for soliciting expertise from the public on policy matters. Codenamed 'ExpertNet', the project would be a web-based software solution which would allow policy makers to provide information and solicit public response. (And yes, it does sound like free consulting to me, but I prefer to look at it in a more positive light!)

ExpertNet wouldn't replace the current means of getting input from the public, i.e. Federal Advisory Commissions and public comment opportunities, but would supplement them. They don't state in what order these three modes of communication would be implemented. (Perhaps they'd be employed all at once, though that doesn't seem the most efficient way to go about it.)

It's also not clear as to whether this tool would be available only to the executive branch or whether it would also be available to the legislative branch. What would be really great is if the final product could be shared and implemented on a smaller scale -- municipalities could employ this same technology to reach out to smaller constituent bases.

The White House is requesting... your input on the concept. Visit the ExpertNet wiki site to read the hypothetical case study and look at the proposed design. There are plenty of interesting discussions to join (and you can even suggest a better name than 'ExpertNet').

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Transparency and Open Government 101

Definition:

In a governing or political context, the term transparency refers to openness with particular regard to making data public, and easily accessible (via digitization) to everyone. Imagine being able to go online and not only access your city's budget, but be able to download the data so that you can load it into a spreadsheet and crank the numbers yourself. Or imagine having access to political donation records of a company whom you distrust -- say, Evil Widget Maker, Inc. Anything from campaign finance records to the spending of appropriations bills can and should be made accessible to anyone interested in keeping a watchful eye on such things.

The Issue:

Transparency is important because being open, and giving people access to data builds trust, and makes corruption more difficult. The public has come to distrust leaders and policy makers, and the only way to increase trust in the system is by being open about what is taking place. In order to have true accountability there must be transparency.

Just before the June 2006 election, CNN conducted a poll and found that over half of Americans believe Congress is corrupt. With back room deals and campaigns being funded by businesses who stand to benefit from having a policy maker owe them a favor or two, it's understandable that the public is distrusting of their leaders.

Positions:

The positions are very straight forward, and I haven't heard too many arguments against transparency.

  • Advocates believe that transparency is a logical counter to corruption. An open government builds trust of the people, and is a powerful tool for democratization. It also increases the level of performance in the public sector.
  • Opponents: One (ethical) argument is concern of increased cost to provide data, and another is that in some cases there is a loss of privacy when implementing transparency.

Current Status:

Transparency advocates have been demanding transparency for many years, but in 2008, on his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government mandating a policy of openness for Federal departments and agencies. This policy of openness set the stage for states and numerous municipalities to follow suit.

The Sunlight Foundation, unquestionably the greatest advocate of transparency at the federal level continues its work by providing support to the transparency community. They are a non-profit, non-partisan think tank which holds an annual conference, provides funding for developers of software tools for transparency, and has various projects that bring federal data to the people, such as their Reporting Group web site.

More Information:

So many municipalities are implementing transparencies policies that my recommendation is to do an online search for your county or city and transparency. I'm pleased to say there are so many I can't list them all here.

  • As mentioned above, the Sunlight Foundation is a great place to start for Federal transparency information. They always have interesting projects in the works.
  • The Obama Administration's home page for federal transparency efforts also has good information.
  • And for any Californians reading this, the California transparency home page has information on salaries, pensions, contracts, etc.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Fail: CA Assembly Attempts to Hide Vote

by The Junk on FlickrThis is a post about government transparency or rather, lack thereof. While transparency is not strictly tech policy, (in fact I like to refer to it as 'policy tech',) I have to get this story out there because it needs to be heard.

On July 24th I was browsing my twitter feed when I came across two tweets from the local PBS station's California Capitol correspondent John Myers (@KQED_CapNotes) stating that a state oil bill to allow additional drilling off the Santa Barbara coast had been defeated by the state Assembly. I took note and moved on.

I didn't think much more about it until I sat down to breakfast with the Saturday Wall Street Journal in which I found an opinion piece by John Fund about California's woeful budget issues. The article mentioned that the Tranquillon Ridge bill had been defeated by the Assembly and:

"Then things got really weird. A motion to expunge the vote from the public record was made by Democratic floor leader Alberto Torrico and was approved by voice vote. It disappeared from the public record as if it had been erased, in an effort to hide their decision from voters."

Aside from feeling angry that it's legal for the assembly to do this, I find it pathetic that they thought they'd get away with it. With reporters tweeting real-time, and a live TV broadcast of the vote, what were they thinking? These are the folks who are setting tech-related policy -- do they have a clue that these technologies exist?

As if that wasn't enough to have me ranting, Sunday's SF Chronicle published an editorial on the incident (and a side box with all the individual votes). If you scroll to the bottom of the page you'll see a list of additional tricks that legislators are able to play in order to skew how they are perceived by their constituents. These tricks include planning an absence during a vote, adding a vote after a bill has been defeated or passed, and changing their vote (they get several hours after the bill's defeat or passage to do this). Dirty tricks, those. So much for transparency and accountability.

I find this totally unacceptable, and I'm looking forward to attending TransparencyCamp this weekend to see what ideas other attendees have for dealing with such problems.

How would you tackle this issue?