The need for – and risks of – government transparency

At yesterday’s Personal Democracy Forum – where I was in the unfortunate position of speaking inbetween two of my favorite geniuses, danah boyd and David Weinberger – I sang the obvious hymn to the choir, arguing that government in a Google age means transparency. All governments’ actions and information must be searchable and linkable; we need an API to government to enable us to build atop it.

I also argue that as newspapers die – and they will – government transparency is a critical element in the new news ecosystem that will fill the void. When government information is openly available, a dwindling handful of journalistic watchdogs in a state capital can be augmented by thousands, even millions of watchdogs: citizens empowered. I’ll write more about this as part of the New Business Models for News Project.

But at PDF, I also listed four cautions regarding transparency – charges to us as citizens:

* We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

In other words, we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate. That was the lesson I learned from Google about releasing a beta: it is a statement of humility and openness and an invitation to join in. We need that in government.

* Transparency must not always mean gotcha. Oh, there are plenty of people to catch red-handed. But if transparency is about nothing more than catching bureacrats and politicians buying lunches, then we will not have the openness we need to make government collaborative.

* We have to figure out how to make government and its work collaborative. What if we were able to help government do its job? What if it acted like a network? What if it acted like Wikipedia, where a small percentage – less than 2 percent, says Clay Shirky – create it; it would not take many citizens to help make government work in new ways.

* We have to turn the discussion to the positive, the constructive. Again, there are plenty of bastards to catch. But we must move past that – especially once we have more watchdogs watching – so we can build.

I ran around the auditorium like a fool – a role I enjoy – playing Oprah and asking everyone in the audience to say what they thought government for the Google age looked like. Since I was running, I couldn’t take notes, but the #pdf09 Twitter hashtag captured some and PDF will put up a video later. Lots of great thoughts.

  • Dean

    “What if we were able to help government do its job?” If we don’t do this we won’t be able to do the other things. Once we see that we are part of the problem we can also become part of the solution. After all it is about us.

    • Andy Freeman

      Speak for yourself.

      I’m not part of the problem. It’s not my fault that govt pisses away money on the “good things” that you want.

      Folks argue for govt spending to do good things. However, the money gets spent but said good things don’t happen. If the advocates of such spending can’t make it work, there’s no justification for the spending.

    • http://www.votetocracy.com David

      Dean
      I couldn’t agree with you more. It is about us. WE are government. They are only representatives. And we can help them do their jobs. As a result of transparency initiatives citizens are able to vote on the same bills in Congress and directly message your representatives. Please see http://www.votetocracy.com.

    • http://www.facebook.com/case.jones2 Case Jones

      Or, it’s about us, vs ‘them’ the so-called representatives who are really representing their own interests, and not our interests at all. I.e. the citizen as external to government, a subject of a system gone horribly wrong…

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  • Paul

    While I agree with you that government transparency shouldn’t be about ‘gotcha’. It initially will end up being that, because all the inefficiencies currently in the system and the little ‘perks’ and ‘liberties’ government currently takes will be exposed with transparency.

  • rjh

    What you are asking for is not “beta”, it’s good management or kaizen. The press, public, and politicians are notoriously terrible managers, so achieving this will not be easy. All three thrive on revenge, and have problems with reasonable expectations.

    The kaizen process tries to put some structure around permission to fail. You are not allowed to be a policeman and spray a crowd with a machine gun for crowd control. That kind of failure is not acceptable. The kaizen process asks that change be based on study and understanding, permits a small change, requires that the results be analyzed and published, and the change removed if it turns out to have been the wrong change. This process works extremely well and has decades of demonstrated success.

    It is extraordinarily hard to put in place in government. Have you ever tried to end any government program, no matter how small? It is a nightmare effort. The cast iron rice bowl effect is very real. This is why things like the military base closure process had to be structured the way it is.

    I have seen this work only on rare occasions in government. For a while DARPA had some good management. They had a semi-official goal that somewhere between 70 and 90% of projects should fail, be cancelled, or have no follow-on. They were a research organization. More than 90% failure meant that they were not making reasonable evaluations of success. Less than 70% failure meant that the research was not taking enough risks and not really advanced research.

    The DARPA process fell apart when the dollars involved became substantial. The iron rice bowl took over.

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  • Andy Freeman

    > * We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

    You can’t be given permission to fail, you take it.

    “Permission to fail” requires a govt that doesn’t defend to the death each and every budget item, program, and so on. That mentality isn’t coming from the people, it’s coming from govt.

    Like it or not, one solution is “gotcha”. When the costs of protecting stupidity become higher than the benefits of protecting it, they’ll stop. They’ll start looking around and ask “is this the sort of thing that I want to defend?”

  • isaac david

    Totally agree. I think politians are so afraid of saying the wrong thing these days, we hardly hear anything from them . Politicians should not feel scared to change their opinion about a issue. Isn’t that the natural process

  • http://www.trainingnewsbuzz.com/ marcus

    “we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate.” I agree on this. Once and for all, we need a government that would collaborate with the people and is not afraid to fail because if they do fail they can always go back and turn to the people since we are still all part of it..who know’s this might turn out to be a great team work but ofcourse its never gonna be easy but let’s just continue to hope. By the way,i have found a link that everyone can also check on your blog and you can publish your news for free, such as this article you have. Im actually fund of reading blogs and articles and i think you should check it out. Anyway, nice post!

    http://www.freepressreleasecenter.com/

    Marcus

  • Bob M

    “In other words, we need beta government” This is one of the arguments for federalism, and for as much as practicable to be done at local levels. A huge centralized government with untried programs enacted for everybody is inherently risky (as we are about to see, again).

  • Steven

    Post deleted?

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  • Tex Lovera

    I’m all for transparency in governemnt. As for “getting people involved”, well, I’ll reserve judgment on just what percentage of folks choose to “get involved” vs. just go along with the flow (Hell, what percentage of us even vote now??).

    But governemnt, as it exists today (and probably as it has always existed), is all about power. Which elected officials (much less the whole class of appointed civil servants) are going to want to share their power? I believe, unfortunately, that the toughest part of this whole process will be electing the right people to begin this process. I do believe that federalism must be emphasized; the more local you can make the process, the better.
    Sorry if I come off as pessimistic, but Utopia is a hard place to get to…

  • http://blog.jayparkinsonmd.com/ Jay Parkinson

    Hey Jeff…
    I was speaking today in London at the Guardian Activate Summit. Wish you were around to hear the British perspective on this and provide your own…

    However, during all these discussions about people demanding that government information be made public, I couldn’t help think the following:

    If democracy is the best system to maintain status quo, hyperdemocracy would be even worse.

    How many people in the US actually read a bill in it’s entirety before it’s signed into law? If that was a collaborative process that needed the input of even more people, we’d all be stuck bickering with failed attempts to satisfy everyone. Therefore, there comes a time that we have to maintain a bit of trust and opacity just to simply get shit done.

    • Andy Freeman

      > How many people in the US actually read a bill in it’s entirety before it’s signed into law?

      It turns out that they pass bills that haven’t even been put together in their entirety.

      > If that was a collaborative process that needed the input of even more people

      If you don’t have time to let me know what you’re doing on my behalf, excuse me for suspecting that you’re not actually acting on my behalf but in your own self-interest. Especially since that’s what’s been happening.

      > Therefore, there comes a time that we have to maintain a bit of trust and opacity just to simply get shit done.

      like the trains running on time?

      • http://h00b1etelescope.blogspot.com H00b1e, the Telescope

        “> How many people in the US actually read a bill in it’s entirety before it’s signed into law? ”

        Well, there is opencongress.org and from their website you can find links to a host of similar Gov’t 2.0 projects.

        It is unlikely that everyone would have time to read and comment on every bill (Honestly, do legislators even do that?), but those interested could use word tags to track bills.

        If bills were hyperlinked and cobbled from discrete portions, citizens could poll-vote on the portion that gets added. Citizens who track word tags would be alerted when they appear in new bills and comment and poll-vote on that portion.

        A “mass of niches” guarding the law.

  • http://140charactersShow.com geo geller

    i was in the audience at both jeff pulvers SocCOMM and PDF and was struck by you inviting the audience to your google restaurant and to google gov and in both instances it made me think about a society built on trust not only serves its people it also asks its people to serve it too – we need to reinvent ourselves and to stop this top down management by fear syndrome if we are to escape the revolving door

    i enjoyed the running around the audience but thought you were more like phill donahue

    be you

    geo

  • http://212media.com vin bhat

    Achieving 100% transparency is definitely the goal, but it will be a long battle. Government bureaucrats are to a certain degree like recorded music executives – they have a nice racket going and there’s not incentive to change it. As phase I, I do think a positive simple, positive approach can be taken to make line item budgets available on line for people to view, comment and discuss. As taxpayers, people should have a right to see how they money is being spent in a very user friendly, web interface at the federal, state and local level. Sure, one person may flip about funds going to the arts in a recession while another may ardently defend such action. This is nothing about success or failure; we’ve elected these officials and given them the authority to make these decisions on our behalf. The key is that any discussion / argument about spending is that it’s open and any one can see both sides of the debate. Phase II becomes how policy and decision making is actually influenced in near-real time by these community discussions. It should also map the Web of relationships among people inside the government and the parties the government provides business across all sectors – defense, auto, aviation, etc. The other thing that Shirky talks about in his book is “lowering transaction costs of participation”. If it’s made easier to participate in government and it impacts something that most people care about (money, taxes), I think we’ll see a lot more than 2% of the population respond and participate.

  • http://neuronspark.com paul

    Here’s a video of your talk at PdF
    http://neuronspark.com/videos/jeff-jarvis/