How Some Agencies Are Rethinking Transparency

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It’s not just about posting products for the public, it’s about sharing how an agency got there, federal officials said.

As agencies evolve to be increasingly data-driven, insiders are working vigorously to elevate public transparency into those federal findings, agency leaders said at a panel held by the Partnership for Public Service in Washington Thursday. 

“I think the research community, in general, does a … I won’t say that we do a poor job, but we can be inaccessible in terms of how we communicate about findings,” Christina Yancey, the Labor Department’s acting chief evaluation officer, said.

Because of this, Yancey said Labor “really takes it to heart” to ensure that they are properly translating the data and findings that they share with the public and emphasizing transparency throughout the lifecycle of various projects and studies they conduct. She said Labor makes it a point to post its annual evaluation plan, which describes the studies the agency plans to fund, as well as active studies it’s engaged in, online for anyone to access. 

“It’s really important to make sure along the way you are bringing transparency to the processes, as well as the products,” she said. 

While the event framed a newly released report by the Partnership and Grant Thornton on leveraging data and evidence to transform how agencies do business, panelists went into great detail about how their agencies are working to guarantee that the public can obtain new insights from the data and analysis they produce. 

Thomas Kelly serves as acting vice president of policy and evaluation for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent foreign assistance agency that provides federal funding and partnerships to developing countries that are committed to good governance. Kelly said every quarter the agency makes independent evaluations of all of its international projects and all the microdata that accompanies their efforts, available to the public. 

He said, in the early days, there was a lot of internal skepticism about sharing deep learnings about the agency’s endeavors with the world. 

“I recall our first chief economist convincing management to do this and he said ‘you have to understand we are going to go naked in public here,’ and our CEO at the time was aghast at that way of putting it, but eventually decided that this did sort of make sense for accountability reasons,” Kelly said. 

In the beginning, the agency adopted an open source platform from the World Bank and put all of its data, from evaluations to design reports, to project microdata out for the public to see, in a messy manner that was “very similar to just throwing things in the closet.”

“We found that although they were all there and in theory publicly available, they were very difficult to find, very difficult to digest and we weren’t accomplishing true transparency,” Kelly said. 

He noted that presenting data that was nearly impossible to navigate was not intentional, MCC was just trying to go as quickly as possible while working as a startup with very little resources to make it easy for people involved. 

“So as we are getting to a more mature phase now, one of the things we are trying to figure out is how to make easier for people to digest the evaluations that we have there,” he said. 

This summer, the agency began rolling out a new product called evaluation briefs, which are four-page documents that accompany the evaluations and data that MCC releases, with in-depth explanations around all that’s being shared. 

“It’s very straight forward, it’s very neutral, it’s visually attractive and it’s something that has had a huge uptake from people like congressional staffers, think tanks and the advocacy community,” he said. 

Similarly, Amy Edwards, the Treasury Department’s deputy assistant secretary for accounting policy and financial transparency, explained in detail how the agency built usaspending.gov, to provide the public with more streamlined clear information around how the government distributes and spends its money. She said it was a challenging effort to share so much information in a way that is easy for the public to navigate and understand. 

According to Edwards, the agency conducted a lot of research using user-centered design and agile principles to start with an initial prototype and got a great deal of input along the way from all of the technical aspects they were using to develop and implement the new site.

“If you go on this website today, you can see a big difference—people are often like ‘wow this is one of the most impressive websites we have seen in government,’ because we asked the public ‘what is it you want to see?’” she said. “So for us, transparency was really exploring the different types of users who wanted this information, creating personas and understanding their needs, their technical abilities and what they were looking for and then designing a site and experience that would really allow them to get what they need from that.”

And though it can be a daunting task, Mark Denbaly, deputy director for food economics data at the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, said it’s also imperative that agencies consider the quality of the data they are sharing before it’s released to the public. 

“I think it’s really important for agencies to be very transparent about what they understand about the data they are making available,” he said.