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.
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.