Measuring Open Government

A new proposal aims to replace 'stale stories' with numbers and detailed assessments.

Crowing about the success of a program or initiative doesn’t mean much if you don’t have hard numbers to back up those claims. That’s a lesson every field learns eventually and most have to relearn on a regular basis.

With that in mind I wanted to draw attention to a proposal from the organization Global Integrity submitted as part of the Knight Foundation’s open government News Challenge. Global Integrity’s goal is not to create a new open government app but to embark on a comprehensive assessment of government transparency programs that already exist so governments and open government advocates can move beyond “increasingly stale stories and one-off narratives” and start working toward a genuine cost-benefit analysis of open government programs.

Global Integrity knows what it’s talking about. The organization is managing public outreach and networking for the Open Government Partnership, an international coalition launched in 2011 aimed at improving government transparency and sharing best practices. Global Integrity Executive Director Nathaniel Heller has complained several times about the gap between aspirations and achievements in national transparency initiatives.

The lack of hard numbers in open government isn’t theoretical. Note the Office of Management and Budget’s 2012 report to Congress on implementation of the E-Government Act, which was published online Monday. The report details several improvements to transparency websites such as the Federal IT Dashboard, but it contains few metrics -- such as the number of watchdog reports and news stories that have cited the dashboards -- that would help Congress evaluate these transparency sites’ value.

It’s worth remembering that making information available is only half of the transparency equation. The second part is journalists, watchdogs and others taking that information and turning it into something that makes government more accountable, more efficient or in some other way makes the world a better place.

(In case you missed it, Nextgov has submitted its own News Challenge entry, which we’ll be updating in response to commenters’ feedback soon. Stay tuned).

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