DorobekInsider Signal column: Defining transparency

As some of you may know, I write a column for AFCEA’s Signal magazine. It appears on the back page of the magazine each month. After coming from Federal Computer Week, which put out 40 issues each year, the deadline for a monthly is very different — I have to write ahead. Essentially, I have already finished my column for the June issue and I’m half-way through with the July column. (A bit of a preview: For June, I write about the end of e-mail… July: the CI-NO syndrome.)

My May Signal column is about transparency. Here is an excerpt:

Transparency can be valuable. One White House official joked with me that the Obama transparency initiative will be a success if it puts my blog out of business. I joked that I wasn’t worried. In fact, transparency can be incredibly powerful. In the end, it enables people to tap into the wisdom of crowds. And transparency is at the heart of Web 2.0 core beliefs: that all of us together are smarter than each of us individually. Therefore, transparency is elemental to government 2.0. These concepts feed and depend on each other. One cannot co-exist without the others.

But no person can overestimate the complexities involved in implementing government transparency. It is a dramatic shift in the way we think about information, particularly in government. We always have understood that information is powerful, but the understanding of the power of information led us to keep our information close. In fact, the theory of Web 2.0—and I would argue of transparency as well—is that information, in fact, becomes much more powerful when it is shared.

You can find a link to the full column here … and yes, even make comments on the Signal Web site until we get our comment functionality up and running here on .

I headlined the column, Why transparency matters: Less then half-way into 2009, the word of the year is more than hype.

And I do find transparency fascinating — and potentially very powerful. And yet very complex.

As a journalist, I, of course, am a big believer in transparency. But how much… and at what point… and to what end.

In the end, transparency is very difficult to define — and everybody is defining it differently. I have taken to calling it a Rorschach test word — how you define transparency, in a way, tells us a lot about how you view transparency itself.

Because it is so difficult, the definition becomes very important, and I think how we define transparency will define the different between the success or failure of these initiatives. To be honest, I am a bit concerned the Obama transparency initiative could end up failing if it ends up being defined as transparency for transparency sake. At its core, I think transparency needs to help agencies — or the government — operate better.

What does that mean? There seems to be a movement that views transparency as the end goal. To me, transparency is merely a means to an end. The end result — the result that benefits people the most — is better decisions, the availability of more data… the goal is good government.

A case in point: At Government 2.0 Camp earlier this year, there were those argued that the government ought to make all of its contracts fully public. Somebody — and it may have been me — raised the point that there is propritary information in contracts that companies simply don’t want to have in the public sphere because it undermines their competitive advantage. The response: Oh well. In the end, that seems to define transparency for transparency sake. In the end, transparency is a means to an end — the end is good government. And the transparency for transparency sake movement simply seems to undercut the entire initiative. Instead, what would be more helpful would be to provide a list of transparency initiatives that would make government better.

I don’t think we can — or should — underestiminate how challenging this is going to be. In the end, most people are reluctant to share their information. In many ways, it just isn’t in our nature. As I suggest in the column — and I use a Mike Causy-ism to illustrate the point — in many ways it is like driving in the snow or ice. We are told to turn into the slide, but it is against our nature. There is a parallel with sharing information. We have been told for generations that information is power, and that led us to gather and keep as much information as we can. But we are learning that the true power of information comes when it is shared.

Therefore, my recommendation to the Obama administration, as they put the finishing touches on the transparency initiative: Focus on transparency that helps agencies accomplish their missions more effectively.

There are some areas where transparency and openness just seems obvious to me. Government data, for example. Vivek Kundra, the Obama administration CIO, when he was the DC chief technology officer, essentially proved that by making all sorts of District data sets available. That enabled the powerful Apps for Democracy contest, where people built applications using that now open data. And Kundra has spoken about using a similar framework on the federal level with the Web site.

Transparency can also shift our political dialogue away from the accusatory ‘the other guy is a liar’ mantra that seems to have dominated our post-Watergate view of government. By making information available as a default, it becomes more difficult for the bad guys to operate because their actions can be seen — and have to be justified. There will still be those out there who will use data to second guess — but they are doing that anyway. And in the end, at least the discussion will be illuminated with data.

But I also think that transparency is also a significant enabler for true government 2.0 — as Kundra calls it, government as a platform. In the end, the government doesn’t have to do everything. But the government can be an enormous enabler, in the best sense of that word.