What Transparency Means to Feds

Launch the Transparency Survey Results

President Obama wants to make government more transparent. He clearly said so in a memo released Jan. 21, one day after he took the oath of office.

"Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing," he wrote. "My administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use."

But what, exactly, is transparency? What information should be released and in what form? Who is responsible for making sure it happens? Government Executive magazine attempts to answer those questions in its April cover story, "Behind the Curtain."

For federal managers, the more important question is: how do you define transparency? After all, the White House is asking federal executives to open their processes and records to the public.

To find out, Nextgov, working with its sister research organization the Government Business Council, surveyed 430 federal managers between Feb. 25 and March 2 about what they believed transparency to be and how well-positioned they were to carry it out.

What we found is a mixed message, according to government management specialists and transparency advocates who looked at the survey results. Government managers were open to Obama's call for transparency, an uncommon sentiment given that most federal middle managers (who were the majority of survey respondents) typically resist change. They wanted to post data, lots of it, which pleased open government groups like the Sunlight Foundation.

"Raw data collected by any agency ought to be available in a machine-readable format," said Ellen Miller, director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based group that promotes transparency in government.

But the survey pointed out some obstacles the Obama administration will have to overcome on its way to an open government. Most federal managers believed they already have made available the information the White House asked them to release to the public. They also said concerns about computer security, the loss of control over their agency's message and not enough resources to make data accessible could derail the president's plans.

Perhaps the biggest concern was federal managers did not view transparency as their responsibility. They said the president, Congress and top government executives needed to drive it. But that's only half the equation, Miller said. "My take on this is it's going to take strong leadership not only at the top of an agency but also at the lower levels," she said. "What does it mean for the agency to be transparent and what does that look like?"

Alan Blautis, director of Cisco Systems Inc.'s Internet Business Solutions Group who has held numerous government management positions in his 28 year government career, summed up managers' lack of interest in taking the responsibility for transparency this way: "There's a strong status quo mentality" among federal managers, he said. "So, here's the question: Who outside of the White House or the stimulus groupies, have you heard talk about transparency?"

The unspoken -- yet understood answer -- is, not many. That's a red flag warning the Obama administration to just how much work it has in front of it to convince agencies to become more transparent.

Click here to view the survey results.