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Public more satisfied with agencies that pursue transparency online, study says

Agencies can fulfill the president's vision of open government by posting large amounts of data online quickly and making it easy to find, a group that tracks the public's satisfaction with government Web sites reported on Tuesday.

By boosting the "thoroughness and accessibility of information made available online," or what is described as "online transparency," agencies can achieve the open government principles that President Obama outlined on his first full day in office, according to a report released by ForeSee Results, a market research firm that, in conjunction with the American Customer Satisfaction Index, issues quarterly reports on public opinion about federal Web sites.

In a memorandum released on Jan. 21, Obama said he planned to instruct agencies to make their operations more transparent and to create a process that asks the public to submit opinions on policy issues and enables collaboration with the public and private sectors.

The study is the first to quantify how online transparency affects citizens' satisfaction with government, ForeSee officials said. In his January announcement Obama said openness would strengthen the nation's democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government, but up until now, no metrics have been in place to corroborate this theory, the research company said.

"The challenge to these agencies and departments is they are being asked to promote more transparency, but the [technology and policy] tools they have are a little limited at this point," said Larry Freed, Foresee's president and chief executive officer.

The company asked eight of the 109 agencies that it typically rates using the ACSI E-Government Satisfaction Index to be part of the monthlong trial, which started in June. The company selected eight sites that have heavy traffic and diverse audiences. Five chose to participate in the pilot, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA and the Veterans Affairs Department.

More than 2,000 visitors to the sites answered survey questions about the thoroughness of the information that the agencies disclosed regarding their activities, the speed with which information was posted online and the accessibility of the information on the site.

"The research validated that perceptions of federal government Web sites' transparency online is an important driver of online satisfaction, which in turn drives trust, future participation and future collaboration," the report stated.

Highly satisfied citizens, compared with those who are less satisfied, were 73 percent more likely to collaborate with the agency online in the future, 78 percent more likely to recommend the site and 77 percent more likely to use the site as a primary resource for interaction with the agency.

ForeSee plans to incorporate a metric for transparency into the e-gov satisfaction index as early as next quarter, Freed said.

But the preliminary study overlooked significant aspects of online transparency, say some open government specialists. There is a growing consensus among government watchdog groups that transparency requires releasing data in raw, downloadable formats that outside parties can manipulate to discover trends.

"Coming up with good government interfaces is a plus, but the first priority should be making the raw data easily accessible," said J.H. Snider, a former research director at the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation who studied the impact of emerging information technologies on democracy.

Freed said his survey addressed this question at a higher level by asking respondents to rate the agency on how accessible information was.

The study's methodology also has some problematic weaknesses, said Snider, now president of iSolon.org, a nonprofit group that identifies conflicts of interests preventing elected officials from using IT to increase accountability. The concepts measured in the evaluation, such as trust and openness, are poorly defined, he said.

Freed acknowledged "these are concepts that could be described a thousand different ways" and said the language will be refined in the next edition of the survey. For example, the company defines trust as a citizen's level of trust in the agency, but plans to measure trust in subsequent studies based on the degree that respondents' agree with three statements: "I can count on this agency to act on my best interest"; "I consider this agency to be trustworthy"; and "This agency can be trusted to do what is right."

Snider also questioned the demographic makeup and expertise of the respondents who rated the agencies on transparency. Freed said the company has not performed an in-depth study of the randomly selected respondents, but added he believes the pool is "very representative" of the audiences of these sites.

Some organizations that operate government transparency sites said they were not surprised by the finding that disclosure heightens trust in government. "If they think the information they are getting is truthful, they will put more stock in the agency or the government that is providing the information," said Dave Levinthal, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions at OpenSecrets.org. But he recommended that agencies should ensure their data is meaningful and unbiased, he added.

Factual presentations should not be "colored or spun one way or another," and if an elected member of the government has an agenda, "that agenda should be very clear and very available for anyone to explore in its entirety," Levinthal said.

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