Government Transparency Is Making Data Understandable

What is government transparency? President Obama promised to post all non-emergency bills brought to his desk on his website for a five day public review period. In a memo to his staff, Obama wrote, “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.” While on the surface, these initiatives and policy changes to open government is a positive win for the public, it presents some concerns on defining exactly what transparency means.

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Take the recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or simply the stimulus bill. Over 1500 pages of text were drafted for the bill. While posting the text of the bill online, making it easily accessible to the public, and providing free access to the documents can be touted as transparent, burying information within 1500 pages is not. Transparency is not only making government data and information publicly available, it is making it accessible and understandable.

Simply making raw data available on a website does not promote transparency. For example, the difference between a well written budget document and a poorly written one is the ability for the general public to understand what its government is planning to spend. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) publishes guidance for developing a Budget Book that includes information beyond just the budget data to effectively present information to the public.

Bottom line: Not only should government publish and make information available for the public, it should provide guidance (in the form of Cliff Notes) and instructions to interpret that data.

Next steps: Find good examples of public transparency.

Published by Daniel Hoang

Daniel Hoang is a visual leader, storyteller, and creative thinker. As an experienced management consultant, he believes in a big picture approach that includes strong project leadership, creative methods, change management, and strategic visioning. He uses a range of visual tools to communicate business challenges, solutions, and goals. His change strategy is to build "tribes" of supporters and evangelists to drive change in culture and organization. Daniel is an avid technologist and futurist and early adopter.

4 thoughts on “Government Transparency Is Making Data Understandable

  1. An interesting point about that promise Obama made is that he signed his first bill into law — a nonemergency bill — without any public comment. I'm not complaining — it was a good bill (lilly ledbetter law). But he didn't fulfil that promise, so what does that mean for govt transparency?

    1. Nisha, good catch. I read about that too but didn't want to go into that for purposes of questioning transparency. I think Obama's promise is a big one and reality will soon hit. Making a five day waiting period for public comment might be too much for the political machine. Forgetting for a moment that he didn't post the bill for public review, is five days sufficient for public comment? It's not truly five days, it's five days less the time it takes to realize that something is available.

      I think we'll find that the intent of transparency will be clouded with the reality of smoke to ensure certain legislation goes through.

  2. Honestly, the five-day public comment period will hopefully be the least of Obama's attempts at transparency. I'm hopeful that his use of various social media tools will encourage the public to actually get involved, to comment, to spread information, etc.

    The 5-day comment period is kind of a sham anyway. By the time the bill is through both the House and the Senate it's in its final form and simply awaiting signage or veto. Can we truly believe that 5 days of public comment is going to affect whether or not he'll sign a bill? Maybe 1 time out of 1,000.

    Don't get me wrong, I think it's a bold, important step; simply allowing people to feel engaged in the process engenders trust, so it is a smart move. It's just not very meaningful in the long run.

  3. I agree Hillary, it is a first step in many to bring transparency and accountability to government. If we make the public aware and engaged, perhaps our politicians will think twice before putting their own interests before their constituents.

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