Defining Transparency

Open government is about more than catching agencies making mistakes, it's about helping citizens protect their interests, scholar says.

This is the first in a two-part series discussing the Obama administration's approach to open government with Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who studies government transparency.

More than seven months have passed since President Obama issued a memo calling for more transparency in government. The White House still is working on a final directive that will detail how agencies should begin to think about transparency and develop policies to carry it out.

To help form how agencies should approach transparency, Nextgov asked Fung, co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at the JFK School, to offer ideas about how the administration should assemble an open government program. Fung is co-author of Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (Cambridge University Press, 2007), which tackles "the issue of transparency from the angle of specific policies by which governments provide information to users," the journal Public Administration Review wrote in its March/April issue. In the book, the authors "conclude that effective targeted transparency policies must be user centered and sustainable."

In that vein, Fung says the White House launched a bold experiment when Obama issued his memo, an attempt to open government and an invitation to the public to participate like they never have before. While he acknowledges the initiative has just begun and holds promise, Fung offers some ideas about how federal agencies could approach transparency to improve policies and democracy. And much of it starts with defining what exactly transparency is.

Nextgov Executive Editor Allan Holmes interviewed Fung in August, shortly after Fung returned from Washington, where he participated in a three-day workshop with federal managers, administration officials, democracy groups, scholars and others to discuss ways to involve citizens more in government. The following are edited excerpts:

Nextgov: How do you define transparency?

Fung: My definition is quite a bit different from the conventional wisdom about transparency. A transparency system is designed to allow people to improve the quality of decisions they make in some way, shape or form, and it enables them to improve their decisions to reduce the risks they face or to protect their interests. Some of those decisions are about political accountability but some are in private life, like what food to buy or what doctor to go to.

So much of the talk from the administration and from outside the administration in the nonprofit world and advocacy groups is about governmental transparency -- that is making the activities of government more transparent. There are two cautionary notes here. Government should be transparent. It's absolutely fundamental.

But I am a little bit worried about the way transparency is being talked about and transparency policies and platforms are being executed now. One aspect is the discourse of governmental transparency is primarily about accountability. You look at transparency of the stimulus. It's about contracts and following the money, and making sure the bids are let properly and there is no corruption, and the money is being spent efficiently. That's transparency for the sake of accountability, which is all great. Except for -- and I don't want to over-criticize your profession -- when you marry the transparency systems that are geared toward governmental accountability, one of the major consumers of that transparency is going to be journalists. Part of the culture of political journalism is a critical culture. You guys have a good story when you find somebody doing something wrong in government.

Then there is the public political culture that is fairly cynical about government and its possibilities. You look at public opinion surveys, and one question they ask people, "Do you think that government is being run by a few big interests or for the benefit of all?" And 70 percent of people answer by a few big interests. So people are pretty cynical out there.

The effect of governmental transparency that is about accountability may be simply to make that problem worse, to further de-legitimize government, because what the transparency system is doing is helping people catch government making mistakes. That's good. You do want to catch government making mistakes. But you want transparency and information systems that also highlight when government is doing a good job.

Much of the current activity around governmental transparency is like creating a big Amazon rating system for government that only allows one- or two-star ratings. But that's not necessarily the case. You could also construct governmental transparency systems that provide the full five-star range.

Nextgov: You view transparency more broadly, then.

Fung: Yes. Most of the people working and thinking about transparency are thinking about transparency of government. There's an underlying presumption there that is a little bit of a mistake. The underlying presumption is that of all the organizations in society, government is the one that creates the most risks and most threats to citizens' well-being and interests. Part of that is right. Government does do a lot of things that create risks for people and harm them, so it is important for government organizations to be transparent so people can try to know what the risks are and try to do things that control and minimize the risk.

But there are private sector organizations out there that make your food or cars or provide social services or health care that also create huge risks, and upon whom individuals depend on enormously for their well-being. I think the same rational for governmental transparency applies even more to making these activities and actions for all these other organizations more transparent.

Nextgov: To take a recent example of risk, you'd apply transparency to the banking industry.

Fung: Yes, the banking industry. The [Federal Reserve Board] just came out with a report that showed banks varied widely on how they worked out people's mortgages. Somebody is in trouble with a mortgage and they go to their bank, and they use these federal programs to try to get a workout so they can keep their home instead of getting kicked out of it. A good piece of information to have would be a community-by-community-level report on the percentage of loans that banks and bank branches are actually working out. Is it 80 percent, or is it zero? Then the public can begin to benchmark their performance. On the ones that are working out a very low percentage of loans, we can go there and ask why, as individuals or as a government.

Who's the target of transparency? Is it just government organizations or all kinds of powerful organizations whose decisions affect people's interest and well-being? And if you say transparency should be about all kinds of organizations, then our energy should go toward making those organizations transparent whose decisions create the most risks and threaten our well-being the most.

Then it's a slightly different lens: There are a lot of times when government becomes the friend of transparency rather than the target of transparency. Because it's only government really, in most cases, that can make these organizations be publicly transparent, through laws that require food manufacturers to provide nutritional labels, or laws that require banks to disclose who they are loaning money to.

But that's a very different political viewpoint from many of the transparency advocates whose natural inclination is to see government as the problem, and the target of transparency and source of secrecy, rather than as a potential ally.

Next week, Nextgov and Fung discuss "The Risks of Open Government."

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