Thursday, April 07, 2011

How much would you pay for government transparency?

After a fanfare opening around two years ago, the US government's proposed budget cuts may force and seven other Gov 2.0 and data sharing websites to close down or dramatically curtail their activities.

When first launched was the first national website for providing centralised access to government data in reusable formats.

The website was lauded globally for its role in supporting the US government to become more transparent, and allow citizens to analyse and repurpose public data.

However in March the first rumblings appeared. Apparently the site's visitor levels had plateaued, and Congressional budget cuts threatened the ongoing survival of the website as well as a range of others including,, IT Dashboard and (as well as a number of internal government sites including and FedSpace) dedicated to making government policies, processes and information more accessible to citizens.

When I first read about the closures in ReadWriteWeb's article, & 7 Other Sites to Shut Down After Budgets Cut on 31 March, my first thought was that this was a clever April Fools prank designed to wind up open government advocates.

This was followed by the GovFresh post on 1 April, Congress weighs deep cuts to funding for federal open government data platforms and assorted coverage across a range of government IT and news websites.

However over the last week it has become clear that this is a legitimate issue, due to budget cuts the US Congress is proposing.

In response the Sunlight Foundation has launched a campaign to Save the data and a range of influential open government advocates have weighed in, such as Tom Steinberg, the founder of the MySociety charity in the UK who is now working in the UK Cabinet Office to support the UK Government's open data initiatives.

Apparently the collective cost of all the websites is around US$32 million (just over a dollar a year per US citizen) - representing 0.09% of the US budget and only 7.7% of the US government's Freedom of Information Act costs. Some commentators have pointed out that other methods of releasing government data are far more expensive and less inclusive or effective.

With parts of the Government 2.0 program (particularly the IT Dashboard and TechStat process) credited with saving the US Government billions in IT costs, the cuts of US transparency initiatives may cost the US enormously.

The proposed cuts raise several very important questions.

How much are nations - and citizens - prepared to pay for government transparency?
And how much transparency are we prepared to trade off for short-term tax saving?

How should the value of transparency be measured?
By the number of people accessing government data, or by the flow-through impact on harder to measure government cost savings and economic benefits?

How can transparency become embedded in government for the long-term?
Particularly when it may be elements of the political or administrative system who wish to constrain transparency for various legitimate, or otherwise, reasons.

It will be a fascinating, and perhaps deeply troubling, process to see how the US answers these questions - and how Australia answers them as well.


  1. Asking what I would pay for transparency is pretty much pointless, transparency in itself does not cost anything; your real question is what I would pay for the tools and processes to support transparency.

    Rather than railing on government to "do the right thing", as many of these lobby groups seem to do, shouldn't we be coming up with well-reasoned and researched ideas that will help them do exactly that at minimal cost?

  2. Should governments need reasons to be transparent?

    Councils don't need to research the reasons for why they should provide garbage disposal, or state governments running water or electricity - they are fundamental services required to support a modern state.

    Doesn't government transparency support a modern democracy? It is a requirement of democracy.

    So why is the burden of proof on citizens to provide 'well-reasoned and researched ideas' to help government be transparent.

  3. While I agree with Craig's sentiment I think the example was off the mark. I think we all agree that we need these services. The transparency comes in providing previously hidden information, eg cost to provide these services. The MySchool website is a perfect example of transparency of information.

    As followers of web 2 and gov 2 would know, the value is not just in providing the data (which is valuable as it stands), but it is in the mashing up of that data with other data to provide powerful applications that would not be possible if the data wasn't available to start with.

    Transparency of government information should become a bau activty, just like publishing Annual Reports, not something we need a workflow to decide whether we should or not.

    I hope the US gov maintains these websites. The $32M spent to maintain them seems trivial for the public good they provide.