The Risks of Open Government

Too much insight into the policymaking process can stymie the goals of transparency, scholar says.

This is the second 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 transparency in government.

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: Nextgov conducted a survey of federal managers in March and April to find out how they defined transparency. Almost 90 percent said transparency involved posting facts and figures that agencies collect. Another 74 percent said their decision-making processes should be made public, and 67 percent said agencies should make structured data available. But they are less interested in disclosing how policies are formed, such as providing minutes of meetings, and who were included in meetings and as part of the decisions. Do these findings suggest that federal managers just want to post what is already public in nature and stop there?

Fung: That's really a complicated question. We need to think about what the goal is. The public wants a good decision. They want an agency to do the right thing, whatever that means. Later on, they want to understand why the agency did what it did, especially if they are on the losing side of some policy. Sometimes full real-time transparency of process helps with that, and sometimes it does not. If there is a process in which the danger of self-dealing is high, then that weighs in favor of more of a looking glass so the whole public can see what's going on every single second to control that tendency for corruption.

On the other hand, there's a huge cost for that. In good decision-making processes, people are often surfacing possibilities, courses of action that seem outlandish, that may turn out to be a bad idea in retrospect, but they are going through a process to find out what is the right thing to do. Full real-time transparency might deter people from engaging in that searching process because they might say things that are taken out of context or that are embarrassing. There may be other processes in which it's OK not to be very transparent while they are happening, and then later on allow for retro-transparency to happen, that is let people know who was at the meeting and who said what.

Nextgov: Federal managers seem to support transparency, as they define it. According to the Nextgov survey, 62 percent said agencies should make significantly more or somewhat larger amounts of information available to the public. And 56 percent believe public involvement would make their agency more successful.

Fung: That it is extremely positive, and I am delighted that it is as high as it is. It's surprising, but in another respect, it's not. Times are changing. The day when people working at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thought they could get the right answer from a policy-analytic process, implement it and people would just be happy with what they did, has passed for a lot of people working in federal government. They realize the importance of public consent and public understanding.

When I teach classes for public officials, one of the questions I ask is, "How many of you say a significant part of your job is interacting with the public in some way?" Almost every hand goes up. Based on that experience, I'm not surprised.

But we don't really have the practices for people to do that work, to engage citizens, and many are making it up as they go along. Some have a knack for it and do very well, but still there are lots of organizations and people who have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do this in a more effective way. To the extent that knowledge can be shared and diffused in federal government, people would be more successful at it.

Nextgov: We're still waiting for the presidential directive to agencies on how to implement transparency. In the meantime, how should agencies be thinking of creating and implementing transparency policies?

Fung: It is a frequent mistake for policymakers, when thinking of information, to think about it from just a policymaker's perspective: My responsibility with respect to transparency is just somehow push out the information I got, like take this database and put it on the Web. But that's a mistake because for the information to help people, they need to think about it from the perspective of who they expect to be using the information. That's a very different perspective. They need to think about how the individual will get the information, why it would be valuable to them or not, what they might do with it and then craft that transparency policy in a way that makes it maximally useful to their intended audience.

A second mistake of policymakers is to think they have to do it all themselves, from collecting the information, analyzing it and making the Web site that the public interacts with. But you think of your own life, and in the past week you've used government-collected information in some way. But you didn't go to a government Web site to get that information. You got it some other way, like Consumer Reports, the Weather Channel or whatever.

That should be a real lesson for policymakers: People want their information, but they don't go to their Web sites to get that information. Government should take their best shot that it can at making the data in what they think is the most useful way, but after that they should provide the open data stream and let everybody else out there see if they can do a better job.

So it's both worlds. But the worse solution would be for a government agency to give some large vendor proprietary rights over that information and that vendor creates a closed platform, which is usually what happens.

Nextgov: What's your opinion about how President Obama has constructed transparency so far, how he has defined it?

Fung: He is extremely committed to governmental transparency and in particular the kinds of citizen participation in development of that transparency. That is fantastic.

A couple of things by way of constructive criticism: The first point is that the people in the administration using platforms to solicit information and criticism about open government should view that as an ongoing process of creation and invention. We don't actually know how to get constructive public input on those large-scale questions very well. The administration is to be congratulated for taking risks in fielding platforms they know aren't perfect. They've taken some criticism for that. But the important thing is to keep on trying and improving. I hope they do that rather than taking the criticism and deciding they are better off with the old, much less transparent and less consultative processes.

The second point is to expand the focus and discourse of transparency beyond just governmental transparency. We need to use the government as an agent to make the decisions and actions for all these large corporations in the economy -- which are creating huge social risks that people don't understand -- more open. People need to understand what these corporations are doing and how to protect their interests and minimize their risks. Americans would be well-served by that broadening of transparency -- not just governmental transparency, but transparency of society as well.