Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What does 'transparent' mean for government?

eGovernment, or government 2.0, is often discussed as a means to create greater transparency in government.

However has there been a clear definition of what transparency really means for government in Australia?

At the furthest extreme transparency would be like living in a glass house with glass furniture - everyone could see in and view everything that was taking place at all times.

This approach clearly isn't practical for governments. Some processes are hidden to prevent foreign nations taking advantage of local changes - such as defense force movements. Others are hidden to protect the privacy of citizens, public servants or politicians and reduce the risk of pressure being placed on individuals by unscrupulous parties - witness protection, fostering and adoption processes spring to mind.

Moving along the scale of transparency, at some point the level becomes too low to sustain democratic processes. When a government hides its budgets there is no accountability to the public, if voting is secret it is easily rigged.

Transparency is also influenced by time and access. For example, the Register of Members Interests for the Australian Federal Government has been publicly available for years. However to see it required physically traveling to Canberra and going to the office where it was available.

Not until recently, when OpenAustralia (a non-government not-for-profit organisation) scanned a copy of the paper-based Register and placed it online was it easy to access without travel.

Timeliness may still be an issue - I'm not sure of the processes whereby OpenAustralia is informed of updates to the Register so they can rescan it to keep the online version current.

Accessibility may also still be an issue - scanned documents are not as accessible as digitally encoded online information. They are harder to transmit or reuse.

Taking the above into account in order to move to a more precise definition, I would define transparency in government as:
Making government data, processes, decisions and activities available in the most timely and accessible formats available at the time - except where making it available would cause direct harm to the nation or its citizens.

This definition is still flawed - 'direct harm' is subject to interpretation.

The definition doesn't consider the cost/benefit - someone must pay to make available data that may only be accessed a few times per year.

Others will see other flaws in my definition - and I would welcome a better one.

However, taking my definition above into account, I see a shift in how government needs to look at its data, processes and decisions.

Firstly, governments need to stop asking IF data should be publicly available and instead take the approach that everything should be available EXCEPT IF it would cause direct damage.

Secondly, governments need to ensure that every system they put in place allows data and processes to be readily exposed in a timely and accessible manner. In my mind this means web-enablement. Legacy systems and processes also need to be bootstrapped into the modern age.

The question I finish on is what will transparency mean for governments?

By nature governments are risk-adverse and prefer to analyse and consider all of the consequences of action before they act. This is a good thing when considering the impact legislation can have on peoples' lives, a mistake in a law can drive thousands into poverty, allow criminals to prosper, or create other severe side-effects.

However in the case of transparency the consequences remain unclear.

Certainly transparency can be seen as a threat - suddenly politicians and government agencies can be held publicly accountable for more of their decisions and actions. Inconsistencies, poor decisions and mistakes can be blown-up into conspiracy theories and lead to unwarranted scalpings. Everyone makes mistakes and all systems need to have built-in tolerances to allow mistakes to be made.

Transparency can also be extremely costly to implement and the benefits are not always clear. Who in the public gains from knowing about some of the low level processes at work in government? Will they provide a net benefit for democracy after taking into account the time and resources required to make the process visible? Will the public even care?

I don't have easy answers to these questions. I don't think any government or individual does.

Here are some other thoughts on the topic of transparency in government:

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