Posts about transparency

The bigger MP scandal story

I don’t think the U.K. scandal around MPs skimming tax dollars through their expenses has been getting nearly enough coverage here in the U.S. That’s not just because it is already causing political upheaval over there. It is also because this storm will surely lead to greater transparency and oversight of legislative expenses and actions there — and we will have a lot to learn about how to force the same to happen here.

I believe that in the new ecosystem of news that will replace the old singular, centralized companies and products, government transparency will have to play a big part. We, the people, will demand that the actions and information of government be searchable and linkable. When that happens, there will be millions more watchful eyes on government, finding stories that journalists of many stripes can then report.

The MP scandal in Britain is opening up a crack in the wall around Parliament, a start in an inexorable trend toward transparency, and is causing a profound discussion about changing government. If we – in media and blogs – were paying more attention to it over here, I believe – well, hope – that it would spark more discussion we must have about transparency and remake government.

I think it would also cause a journalistic discussion about how the Telegraph has made a mark with this story and how data is (are) news.

Minister of digital engagement

Tom Watson, the blogging and tweeting Member of Parliament, passes along, via Twitter, a job posting for a director of digital engagement in the U.K. government. Specs include:

• Develop a strategy and implementation plan for extending digital engagement across Government
• Work with communication, policy and delivery officials in Government departments to embed digital engagement in the day to day working of Government
• Work with Directors of Communication to ensure that digital media are included in the reporting of reaction to Government policy and initiatives
• Work closely with web teams to ensure that digital communications are making the most effective and efficient use of hardware and software
• Act as head of profession for civil servants working on digital engagement
• Ensure that digital engagement is always a leading part of Government consultation
• Introduce new techniques and software for digital engagement, such as ‘jams’ into Government
• Convene an expert advisory group made up of the leading experts on digital engagement to provide advice to Ministers and act as a sounding-board for the Government’s digital engagement strategy . . .

You will have a small budget, but two key purposes of the job are to assist Government in making effective use of current digital spend, which runs into many millions, and to enable departments to save significant sums on their engagement activities through switching from expensive face to face and postal methods to cheaper digital techniques. You will be accountable for leading Government’s new focus on digital engagement, which is central to Government priorities and with significant risk of reputational damage if this does not happen or Government gets it wrong. . . .

You will be required to exercise influence across departments with Ministers and senior officials to drive forward the future of digital engagement. This will require Government and individual departments to change the way they do business – from consulting citizens to collaborating with them on the development of policy and how public services are delivered to them. It will involve supporting Ministers and senior officials in entering conversations in which Government does not control the message or the dialogue. . . .

Within two years the use of world class digital engagement techniques should be embedded in the normal work of Government

Campaign by the internet, govern by the internet

The Guardian’s Comment is Free asked me to write a post about the new White House blog. I’m about to get on a plane so I’m crossposting it here before that link goes up…..

Two years ago, when I interviewed the then-head of David Cameron’s Webcameron, I asked whether—when and if he assumed office as Prime Minister—he would continue making his videos. “If it suddenly stopped,” the aide replied, “that would be seen as a very cynical move . . . You can’t stop communicating.”

Campaign by the internet, govern by the internet.

Now that Barack Obama is in the White House, he must continue to use and spread the tools of the internet and transparency that he so brilliantly plied to win the office or else it would make his promises of change empty.

We see the barest beginnings of his digital administration at the White House Blog. (Ah, how that link warms the heart of a blogger. Too bad that the president and vice-president of Iran beat the president of the birthplace of blogging to the platform. Oh, well, progress is progress.)

Dave Winer, one of the fathers of blogging, complained on Twitter and his blog that the presidential blog is weak tea. But I think 24 hours is too soon to judge a revolution.

The presidential blogmaster, Macon Phillips, promises communication, transparency, and participation and we’ll see how well he and his boss live up to their broad goals. Before taking office, they asked the public to suggest policy and action at Change.gov–as Starbucks and Dell do (it’s all the rage)–but, sadly, they took that down when they took office and linked instead to the new blog, where we can watch and read his inaugural address.

A new age of government openness, and collaboration with the citizenry won’t be made on one blog or Twitter or RSS feed or YouTube stage. It will be made by issuing and instilling a new ethic of transparency in government.

I argue that we should abolish the Freedom of Information Act and instead make transparency the default for government’s business, which should occur digitally and in the open, so citizens may search, link, comment on, and analyze it. Rather than our asking the government to release our information, the government should ask our permission not to.

And the President should also instill an ethic of listening in the agencies of his administration. Some collaboration may occur at the White House site. But the real voice of the people is already out here, on the internet, in blogs, on YouTube, all around us. All you have to do is search for it and listen. That will be a new age in government.

The public press: Transparency is our goal

I hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. The goal of the press is transparency. We want to shine sunlight on the powerful in public.

2. The press must be transparent. Not to be transparent is to be hypocritical. Opaqueness is not an act of trust.

3. Public means public. When something happens in the public, whether it is seen and heard by one person or by 100, it can now be seen and heard by the world thanks to any one of those witnesses. That’s what public means.

Isn’t that obvious?

Apparently not, given the arguments over Mayhill Fowler, which Jay Rosen adroitly summarizes and comments on, and other debates about the rules of the press, what they are, and who holds them. I think the argument is getting unnecessarily overcomplicated and muddy. It’s simple, as simple as I put forward above.

Now out of these rules, there are some consequences.

Everyone — including Mayhill Fowler — agrees that transparency of her identity and purpose would have been preferable. No one is arguing with that.

I say the rules mean that editors should be training their staffs to be always open, always transparent — even in cruddy little blog discussions. I’m saddened that some don’t.

These rules mean that anything that happens in public is public. Corollary to that: Anything a politician does should be public.

Public figures, especially politicians, already assume that everything they say can and will be used against them in a court of public opinion. So I have no sympathy for Barack Obama — who knew his “bittergate” session was on the record if closed to press invitations, as Jay points out — and Bill Clinton — who was very much in a public place when he spoke about Todd Purdhum.

So let’s say that Fowler didn’t ask the question at the rope line but overheard it: Should she report what she heard? I say yes. Let’s say she asked the question and didn’t report it but the person next to her did. OK? Still yes. Let’s say that person next to her was not a civilian but was a reporter with credentials around the neck? Would that reporter report what she’d heard? You bet she would. Now let’s say someone else asked the question and shared the answer, someone who had never reported, blogged, or published before but who realized that this was something others would want to know, so she went to a blog or forum and retold the story in the comments. So? So what? It’s all public. It’s all reporting. It’s all news if we think it is.

Now the biggest consequence of these simple rules for the press: We, the press, should be making it our sworn goal to eradicate off-the-record and anonymous sourcing and secret deals. Of course, the problem is that is those special arrangements are what reporters believe give them access to the powerful. And access is what makes them powerful, they think. Access, to paraphrase a few hacks (British usage) in Rosen’s post, is what gets them their good stories. Access is also what makes them special: they have it and you don’t. These are the rules that keep the club a club. These are also the rules that corrupt journalists who traffic in them with those they are supposed to be covering and uncovering.

Of course, off-the-record anonymity and secrecy will linger on, especially in investigative reporting (which, remember, is a tiny percentage of the reporting actually done).

But can’t we at least agree that we don’t like off-the-record deals with anonymous sources to keep secrets? Can’t we agree that that is antithetical to rule No. 1 above, to the mission of the press?

And shouldn’t we be happy, as Jay is in his post, that there is more reporting and more sunshine from more witnesses now empowered? Shouldn’t that added journalism be welcomed by journalists? Of course, it should — unless the journalists want to protect their club, which is no longer a tenable position in the public. And keep in mind that as more and more journalists get laid off and become bloggers, they’ll find themselves on the other side of that rope, off the bus, out of the club. I say that shouldn’t matter. Professionalism and standards don’t come with a paycheck.

I was hoping we were getting past the point where there was a line. I was hoping that we were getting to the point that, as Jay says, we could agree that there are more and new systems of trust — rules and ethics — and that we could be open to learning them. I was hoping.

But I think the discussion has gotten so murky that it is time to bring it back to the basics, the essentials. Let’s sing the chorus:

1. The goal of the press is transparency.

2. The press must be transparent.

3. Public means public.

: LATER: Jay Rosen finds in this post by Jeff Bercovici the poster child of what he calls the guild mentality and what I call the clubbyness of journalism. Felix Salmon disagrees with his Portfolio colleague. So Jay, Felix, and I are the anticlub, the unguild.

Guardian column: Fess up, journalists

Oops, I forgot to subject you to my Guardian column this week about SNL, Obama’s honeymoon, and the election. If that’s not enough of me, here’s the transcript of my appearance on the same subject on Howie Kurtz’ Reliable Sources.

And for good measure, I give you Will Bunch of the Philly Daily News and James Poniewozik of Time, all of us agreeing that it’s time for journalists to fess up and tell us whom they’ve voted for.

* * *

In a time of blogs with their ethic of transparency, how long can journalists continue to hide their opinions? I’m a believer in the British newspaper model, in which print journalists join a tribe, Guardian left or Telegraph right, and then invite the public to judge them not on their hidden agendas, but on the quality of their journalism. British broadcast and all US news organisations, by contrast, expect us to believe journalists are devoid of opinions: half-human hacks, roboreporters.

That fiction is falling apart in the US presidential campaign, where news media have failed to cover one of the essential stories of the event: media’s own love affair with Barack Obama.

The story has begun to attract attention, with comedy show Saturday Night Live twice skewering the press’s roughing up of Hillary Clinton and fawning over Obama. In one skit, the show’s faux Clinton complains: “Maybe it’s just me, but once again it seems as if a) I’m getting the tougher questions and b) with me, the overall tone is more hostile.”

The real Clinton picked up the punchline at the next debate and said: “If anybody saw Saturday Night Live, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.” Some believe this played a role in her victories last week.

In the other skit, a reporter gushes to “Obama”: “I just really, really, really, really want you to be the next president.” And the Fauxbama responds that journalists are “tired of being told, ‘You journalists have to stay neutral, you can’t take sides in a political campaign’. And they’re saying, ‘Yes, we can. Yes, we can take sides. Yes, we can.’”

So why don’t they? The question of journalistic objectivity is the stuff of endless journalism-school seminars. But what’s different this year is that the journalists’ opinions are related to the quality of coverage of the campaign.

I’ve seen reporters complain Clinton doesn’t give them access or is aloof; I’ve seen journalists quoted (anonymously) saying that they don’t much like her. Of course, that shouldn’t affect their coverage – since when do we see crime reporters whine that murderers are mean to them? – but it does. Obama is on an endless press honeymoon. He breathes rhetorical cumulus clouds – “Change we can believe in”, “Yes, we can”, “We are one” – without reporters challenging him or his supporters to define what they mean. I’ll wager that if a pollster asked 1,000 Obama fans what “change” means, there’d be 100 different answers.

There’s another new factor in the objectivity debate: weblogs. Reporters are now writing them. And they’re learning that if a weblog is successful, it is a conversation held at a human level. That conversation demands frank interaction and openness. As one online executive puts it: blogs are a cocktail party. I’ll add that if you talk to friends at a party and refuse to give your opinion while demanding theirs, someone will soon throw a drink at you, as I have been wanting to do to many a TV pundit lately.

I’ve heard TV news executives say that to have on-air personalities writing blogs might present a conflict because, after all, TV people are impartial. But they already live with that conflict by presenting TV journalists as personalities and then cutting off that part of the personality that enables opinion. If these people want to join the discussion on the net and reap its benefits, they have to give something of themselves.

The more journalists tell us about their sources, influences and perspectives, the better we can judge what they say. So I should tell you I voted for Clinton. You probably could have guessed that. But now you don’t have to.

Covestor’s launch

covestor.gifThe Wall Street Journal today mentions Covestor, a new service that enables investors to share their trades. I invested in the company, which was founded by the sonorously monikered Rikki Tahta, a fellow former board member on Moreover.

Here’s the idea, from various of the company’s self-descriptions: “Covestor.com aims to de-institutionalize money management. They provide a real-trade sharing service that offers self-directed investors the opportunity to compete with, and be rewarded like, professionals. By sharing the work they already do for themselves Covestor enables them to build their reputations, and eventually earn fees based on proof of their investment record.” And from the home page: “The smartest investors aren’t all professional money managers. Every day, adept unsalaried players around the world are matching, or beating, results of the pros. We think it’s high time for these unsung investment talents to get more recognition, more resources, more of the rewards.”

So it’s not a wisdom-of-the-crowds play. It’s a wisdom-of-the-wise play. Those who have demonstrated track records of success — and prove that by revealing their actual trades — can benefit as others see their value. How? When other investors watch what works for a successful investor and follow his or her lead. Now we can see who is succeeding — and why — instead of relying on the advice of brokers and analysts whose track records are not so clear and whose money is not where their mouths are.

At another level, part of what’s fascinating about this is, as the Journal begins to point out, people today have a different sense of privacy — or better put, a different sense of the value of openness. My parents and grandparents would not reveal such facts, even anonymously. But the key to social linkage on the internet is that you have to give up something to get something: You won’t meet other skiiers unless you reveal that you are one. This is true of social services: Facebook, MySpace, dating services. But it is also true of other arenas that want to benefit from social intelligence: You can’t call yourself an expert investor unless you show your stuff. And now you can benefit from that, thanks to Covestor. It’s also true that the more you reveal, the more value you get back.

Covestor verifies your trades (by your allowing it to take your data in directly from a broker or by Covestor manually confirming your status). You get to control your identity: you can keep it within the Covestor community or you can export your identity to, say, your blog with a widget that reports and certifies your track record.

Now I’m a dolt at investing — except, of course, for my very wise investment in Covestor and Rikki; after all, I still own Time Warner stock and I never bought Apple stock. But I will benefit from Covestor by following the leaders. Because I’m a dolt, though, I won’t do the best job actually describing the service. Om Malik, who’s much wiser and probably thus richer, does a better job:

You sign-up for the service, and plug-in your online brokerage account information and your portfolio shows up on the site, and the system creates its relative performance to the broader indices, sector indices and also creates a risk profile. It’s not a fantasy game; instead it is your real portfolio, where real money is at work.

The site, while no-frills has all the elements you would see on say Morningstar fund screen. You can see a person’s holdings as percentage of their portfolio, with relevant charts and other relevant data. Lets say, you are good at picking broadband stocks; others on Covestor can track your investments. There are shades of social networking, with a built-in reputation system. There are other features that help you gauge the quality of investment information you are getting from a person.

If the “covestors” agree with your investment style, then these covestors can allocate say a small portion of their own investment dollars to mimic your investment style. The more successful you are, the more followers you get. Think of yourself as their virtual money manager – an attractive proposition for those who take (very vocal) pride in their investing prowess. It is not that different from a blog, where unique voice or view points lead to a ‘following.’

See also Seeking Alpha’s report.

Transparent BBC

Ben Hammersley, my Davos roomie in his Guardian days, has undertaken a new project with the BBC, showing how shows are made, behind the scenes, with video and online notes and everything short of his expense account:

To ombud or not to ombud

Peter Preston in London’s Observer is comparing and contrasting ombudsmanly techniques as the Guardian prepares to shift to a new holder of its position and as the New York Times debates whether it should still have one:

So there, perhaps, is one basic difference between the New York Times and the Guardian. [Outgoing Guardian Readers' Editor Ian] Mayes, appointed by the Scott Trust (which owns the Guardian) and thus proof against sacking by notionally nettled editors, is an insider who basically aims to explain, mediate and correct rather than censure. He’s slow to anger and punctilious in his judgments. [New York Times Public Editors Daniel] Okrent and [Barney] Calame, by contrast, are outsiders: they know about journalism, but not the inner sanctums of the Times. After the humiliation of Jayson Blair’s lies, they were new brooms supposed to sweep clean.

NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has been arguing — or perhaps floating trial balloon pins — that with the new openness at the paper, there is less need for an ombudsman. I say he’s right and he’s wrong. When The Times appointed Okrent, I remember saying that this could be a crutch and that every editor should be a public editor, every journalist an ombudsman. But Okrent proved to be effective not just as a representative of the readers and not just as a critic of the paper but also as a critic of journalism. So though I think that Calame has been weak broth by comparison, I now believe that The Times should continue to have an ombudsman when his term expires. The role could, indeed, change. But I think that The Times of all papers should have someone keeping an independent eye on it — and on journalism. If The Times wants to maintain its status as the leading light of American journalism, how can it do less? And, yes, that means that others in the paper — including Keller himself — should also see themselves in the role of explaining their process; transparency should be part of their job descriptions and even part of their bonuses, for transparency is now the essential building block of trust. And The Times still needs to rebuild its trust — and I don’t just mean after Jayson Blair; I mean that every journalist must build and rebuild trust every day with every story.

And there are limits to transparency and openness as last week’s episode at the Telegraph demonstrates, when a correspondent got nicked for revealing too much about his (flawed) process and for being (too) direct with a reader. The problem in organizational journalism is that the organization abhors transparency; it wants control. And so I have come to believe that it is also necessary to have someone whose role is openness. And then let the insiders compete with their openness, with the knowledge that there is always someone who can ask the uncomfortable question and give the uncomfortable answer (which, after all, is what we expect of everyone we cover).

Is it better if that person is an insider tasked with explaining or an outsider assigned to probe? I tend to think that all the insiders need to do the explaining and that the outsider is there to act as countervailing pressure on them. But as Preston points out, times, like The Times, have changed:

What’s in the New York wind now may be a far softer, insider system. Would that be disaster on the trust-in-journalism front? Perhaps. Yet there’s also a pinch of necessary change in the mix. When Mayes began his Guardian stint a decade ago, many of today’s bloggers hadn’t bought their first PC. If they didn’t like what the paper printed, they could write a letter to the editor and maybe (one chance in 10) see it printed. But now the Guardian, like its competitors, maintains an open, and very public blogging zone, where readers can put the boot in at will. More than 80 more have piled online this week, most still unconvinced about the need to hang Saddam on a front page.

There’s a feisty scorn here for what’s seen as the old routines of journalism: sacred communicators on stage, groundlings sitting in a pit. Why wait a week for an ombudsman to adjudicate when you can burn the theatre yourself?

Why, in sum, believe that the business of holding newspapers or broadcasters to account hasn’t altered hugely in the last few years, and isn’t altering still? . . .