Tracing Transparency

President Obama's open government initiative unleashed a torrent of agency data, but citizens still don't believe they're getting the whole story.

As the second anniversary of President Obama's open government initiative approaches, the overwhelming sentiment among citizens is that public officials aren't being frank with them. And if trust translates to transparency that means federal agencies haven't even come close to peeling back the onion, judging from their scores in a survey last fall by market research firm ForeSee Results and Nextgov.com, Government Executive's sister publication.

The day after his inauguration in 2009, Obama issued a memo to the heads of his administration with instructions to use cutting-edge technology to publicly reveal the goings-on in government. He said such disclosure could be achieved through the Internet by providing transparency into the government's information, opportunities for public participation in agency decision-making and collaboration with outside groups.

ForeSee Results, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., canvassed a random sampling of 5,100 people online to determine whether Obama's open government movement has improved perceptions of transparency into the White House, agencies and Congress. The grades were low: The White House earned a score of 46 out of a possible 100 on its endeavors to be forthcoming about what the West Wing is doing; federal agencies came in with an aggregate score of 40 and lawmakers rated 37.

On a typical grading scale, those scores would equate to an F. But it remains to be seen whether the survey results reflect actual concerns about secrecy, or whether people just have no clue about what transparency is, according to open government researchers. "This is not a measure of transparency in government," says Anthony M. Cresswell, deputy director of the Center for Technology in Government at the State University of New York at Albany. "It is a measure of what they think of transparency in government-it is a measure of opinion. It is not the same."

Gauging Success

Cresswell and his team are investigating-and struggling with-how to measure and understand openness in government. For the ForeSee-Nextgov.com Government Transparency Study, analysts asked participants to evaluate the thoroughness of the information federal organizations distribute; the speed with which that information is released; and the ease of accessing it. The American Customer Satisfaction Index statistical engine then parsed their answers to generate a numerical score.

"You're going to find these kinds of results, and they should be questioned because it's not an easy thing to answer," says Natalie Helbig, a program associate at the center. Program Manager Meghan Cook adds, "One of the things that we've uncovered and discussed extensively in our research is that measuring transparency is chasing something that you don't have a definitive answer to."

Because no one has developed benchmarks to gauge actual transparency, the center's researchers are focusing on discovering how much value intended audiences gain from certain White House initiatives and agency projects. One such project is Data.gov, a compendium of downloadable federal statistics. The White House launched the website in May 2009 with 47 data sets, and now it offers more than 300,000. "Is the government more open as a result of that? Absolutely," Cresswell says. "Is the government more transparent? I don't know."

One intended audience says yes. Participants in online social networks viewed the administration as more open than nonparticipants, according to the ForeSee study. People who use social media rated transparency at 47, compared with 38 for those who do not.

But another intended audience says no. The Sunlight Foundation, an advocacy group that builds Web applications based on government statistics, is highly critical of Data.gov's content. The organization translates data into online graphics and interactive features that illuminate hard-to-see patterns, such as how campaign spending has influenced the political system.

"We don't like high-value data that involves wild horse counts" from the Interior Department, says Ellen Miller, Sunlight's co-founder and executive director. "We suspect they have data that would be of more interest to citizens," such as which companies already have been cited for oil spills, or other environmental hazards.

If Obama wants to boost the administration's scores, "he needs to use the bully pulpit-lend his personal prestige to this issue. He has to invest his own time and energy in this, rather than relegate the work to senior officials in the administration," Miller says.

The public faces of open government are federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra; Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra; Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform; and Beth Noveck, deputy CTO for open government.

"The issue of data transparency is not high profile enough and only [Obama] can put it at the top," Miller says. For example, he could call for the release of all economic indicators in their raw form, she notes. "He hasn't lent his own credibility, his personal commitment to open data and transparency. He's had Norm Eisen do it. He's had Beth Noveck do it. If he did an event, that would run it up the flagpole," Miller says, adding that meeting with activists, techies and others would say as much about the president's dedication to the initiative as his memo.

But OMB officials insist agencies have embraced open government, mapping out their plans and publishing valuable information on Data.gov. In addition, the administration convened an international open government data conference in November to accelerate the release of quality information around the globe.

The Trust Factor

There are several other reasons citizens-and agencies-might not yet be buying into the president's transparency campaign, ForeSee analysts say. For one, the economy has tanked, causing people from all walks of life to lose faith in what the government is saying and doing. Nearly a third of respondents had lost their jobs, or had a spouse who had lost a job in the past two years. A quarter had experienced a large decline in the value of investments they had relied on for living expenses. Fifty-six percent reported their close friends or extended family members had lost a job. Twenty-three percent said their friends or family had lost a home.

The survey demonstrated that transparency leads to trust-a causality that outside researchers have long suspected. "It's nice to see that confirmed. And the administration ought to pay a little more attention to that," Miller points out.

Americans seem to have a more cynical view of the government's honesty than they did a few decades ago, the study found. Information is more abundant in the Internet Age, so people are more aware of facts and opinions that contradict what the government is saying. Compared to just a year ago, 48 percent of respondents said their level of trust in the government is lower.

"The citizen is becoming more knowledgeable. That raises the bar," says Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, which collects and analyzes data for numerous ACSI reports in conjunction with the University of Michigan. "The testimony of the automotive executives is on prime-time TV, and bank bailouts and the BP oil crisis are on every day-we tune much more into it. . . . You can't hide from it, and then you expect more transparency."

Trust consists of four components: honesty, consideration, accountability and transparency, according to Don Tapscott, co-author of the new book Macrowikinomics (Portfolio, 2010). It's a follow-up to the 2006 best-seller Wikinomics, which examines how new technologies combined with mass collaboration are transforming society.

Obama might have lost points on the transparency piece of trust because people who do not frequent .gov websites are unaware he has an entire initiative on openness, notes Tapscott, an adjunct professor of management at the University of Toronto's Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. "I grew up being broadcasted to," he says. "[President Obama] should be able to stand up at a press conference and say, 'Here's something I'm wondering about. Or, I made a bad mistake on that.' "

It isn't every day the president stands at a podium after Republicans trounce Democrats in the elections and says, "I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking-like I did last night." But Tapscott says more such "shellacking" comments would improve perceptions of transparency. The political environment makes it difficult for Obama to be so forthright, Tapscott says. "You can't be open and have candor about things because you'll be killed," he adds.

Demographics also play a part in who does or doesn't think the government is being open about its operations. Not surprising, those who characterized themselves as liberal or very liberal rated federal transparency at 50 and 48, respectively, while people who had attended a Tea Party event in the past year rated the government at 32, the study found.

"People giving higher transparency, satisfaction and trust ratings often fall along traditional demographic lines: They are likely to be Democrats, liberal, urban and rely heavily on social media, MSNBC, daily newspapers, The Daily Show, and government websites for information about government," the study said. "People giving lower transparency scores tend to be Republican, conservative, rural or suburban, and rely on FOX News for information about government." Younger respondents had more faith in transparency efforts than older participants. Those ages 18 to 24 scored transparency at 48, and the ratings generally went down as the age of respondents increased. Suburbanites gave the government a 40, while city dwellers scored transparency at 46 and people living in rural areas rated it at 34.

Higher-educated respondents graded the government more generously than those with less schooling, with one exception: people who did not finish high school. While high school graduates rated transparency at 39, those without diplomas rated transparency at 45, the analysis found.

Of note, white respondents did not give the government high marks on transparency, according to the results. While blacks gave the administration a 54, whites handed it a 36. Neither income nor gender had an impact on people's perspectives, the researchers discovered.

Taking the Lead

The fall survey marked ForeSee's first attempt to rate government transparency. It should be noted the assessment did not rate the Obama White House against the Bush presidency. "It would be interesting to make a comparison of transparency across the two administrations," Cresswell says. "I think what you'd find is a very strong bias based on people's political bent."

Despite the executive branch's low scores, the study does not indicate the open government movement has been a failure, according to Freed and the other researchers. "The White House is leading here. It's good news that they are out in front of the rest of government," he notes. "But it's a long journey."

Observers hope the power shift in Congress will inspire even greater transparency at the White House. "People's views of Congress have been pretty down for a long time," Cresswell says. "I think it would be great if the different branches of the government got into a contest to see who could be more transparent." Miller agrees, saying a little friendly competition could pressure the White House to push agencies to release their data.

White House officials acknowledge that for too long sources of government information have been inaccessible, or hard to navigate. "We are implementing unprecedented transparency and reform efforts to make government more open, efficient and responsive to the American people," says Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and chief performance officer.

"We are committed to making data available through sites like Recovery.gov, Data.gov and USASpending.gov," he adds, referring to websites that track agency activities such as stimulus spending and contract funding. "By deploying new technologies to create greater openness and incorporate ideas from outside Washington, we can make government work harder, better and more efficiently for the public."

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