Behind the Curtain

What transparency really means.

What transparency really means.

When President Obama issued his Day One memos instructing members of his administration to operate under principles of openness to spur citizen engagement, government watchdogs cheered. They hailed the call-a nod to his campaign promise to make government more transparent-as unprecedented and said it was a welcome change from the past eight years.

But in the weeks since Obama's pledge that transparency would be a touchstone of his presidency, policy watchers have turned their attention to the details. What exactly is government transparency? How is it interpreted by those inside government who need to execute it? How will it be measured? What will it look like to the public?

Those questions are hard to answer, and the responses depend largely on who you are. Academics and good government advocates believe agencies should provide their raw data and internal evaluations of policies so the public can dig into the information to find answers to their own questions. Others believe agencies must impose order to the data so the public can easily draw conclusions. Still others believe the Obama administration should choose to show the results of programs and initiatives, and not provide the supporting data, documents or internal discussions on the thinking behind their decisions or what led to a particular outcome.

Most government managers fall into the last group. According to a survey of 452 federal managers that Government Executive conducted from Feb. 25 through March 2, nearly 90 percent said they viewed transparency as providing facts and figures on project results and findings. About 74 percent said open government also included providing information such as policy rationales on how agencies went about making the decisions that they did, and 67 percent said open government also included making data ready for analysis from nongovernmental groups. What managers said was not part of their definition of transparency was supplying names of those involved in top-level policy decisions (only 45 percent said those should be made public) and minutes from meetings (26 percent). The survey was jointly conducted by Government Executive's sister research organization, the Government Business Council.

How transparency plays out will have significant political ramifications for Obama, say academics and government technology specialists. If the administration gets transparency right, which means it succeeds in opening the policymaking process and government operations in a way that the public perceives as credible and holds agencies accountable, it will forever change standard operating procedure in Washington. That could lead to a resurgence in the belief that government can solve problems and serve the common good. But if it fails, the president's infectious expressions of hope and change that got him elected could in hindsight be perceived as mere political rhetoric and he and the Democratic party will suffer at the polls.

Expectations are high, as is the enthusiasm among the advocacy groups that push for open government. "They understand the enormous gravity of this effort," says Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. "Compared to the last eight years, he honestly wouldn't have to do that much more than he's already done to roll the ball back, but he has promised to go even further to be the most transparent administration in history."

Formulating a Definition

In his first full day as president, Obama gave some clues about what he means by transparency. He issued a memo on Jan. 21, the day after taking the oath of office, stipulating that the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, as well as his yet-to-be-named chief technology officer, craft an open government directive by May 21 that laid out actions to support his campaign promise to make government open and accountable. The guidance also stated that agencies should favor disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act rather than withholding information. That means putting out information in a timely fashion and not waiting for specific requests from the public. Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidelines to agencies in March saying they should "readily and systematically post information online in advance of any public request."

Such instructions are a clear message to federal managers that Obama is breaking from the policy set by the Bush administration. His position is an about-face from a directive that former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who served under President Bush from 2001 to 2005, issued to agencies instructing them to withhold information when possible.

How the Obama administration de-fines transparency can be pieced together by a few projects the White House has initiated. As Congress fought over how hundreds of billions in economic stimulus dollars should be spent, the White House launched, a Web site that lets the public monitor how the government spends and distributes the money. Franklin Reeder, an Obama transition team member and former director of the White House Office of Administration, said the site was "ready to roll" weeks before lawmakers approved the $787 billion package. After its launch, however, critics panned for its lack of interactive applications. In addition, Obama's stimulus overseer, Earl Devaney, told a group of state recovery representatives on March 12 that building a database on the site so the public can analyze the spending could take more than a year.

Agencies are steadily populating the site with data and its utility is expected to grow as more information is posted. OMB Director Peter R. Orszag issued preliminary guidance to agencies in February directing them to administer and account for stimulus funds and to submit spending and performance data to On March 3, agencies began handing in weekly reports. By May 1, they must offer individual plans that outline broad recovery goals and coordination efforts. Monthly financial reports are due starting May 8, according to Orszag's 62-page memo.

But some open government advocates have pointed to at least one transparency letdown. When Obama signed into law an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program in February, he took a major step toward his pledge to "require that all children have health care coverage." The president signed the bill the same afternoon the House passed it, breaking a promise he made during a campaign speech more than a year and a half ago in Manchester, N.H. "When there is a bill that ends up on my desk as president, you will have five days to look online and find out what's in it before I sign it," he said at the time.

The wording of that pledge has since been amended to refer only to nonemergency measures, but neither the health insurance law nor the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act he also signed shortly after taking office meets that test, argued Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer at the Washington-based privacy advocacy group Center for Democracy and Technology, at a briefing at the center's office on Feb. 17.

House Republicans began to poke at perceived shortcomings in the administration's reporting for the stimulus funds. In a March 12 letter to Devaney, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, questioned whether the White House would make the data on spending easily accessible and searchable. "Full transparency requires attention to not just what is posted online, but also how the information is posted," Issa wrote. "Information about how the taxpayers' money is distributed must be disclosed in a structured, open, and searchable format."

The Open-Your-Data View

President Obama's Web team is one of the best that has ever been assembled, says David G. Robinson, associate director of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. But on their way from the campaign trail to transition work at the White House, the gang seemed to lose some of their high-tech mojo. Mere days after Obama's historic swearing in, complaints surfaced about the redesigned White House Web site. Internet specialists and social networking advocates said the site lacked interactivity and was sluggish in updating content. appeared to suffer from the same syndrome that plagues a range of government sites.

What happened? "They have faced an increasingly stringent and burdensome array of regulations as they have become progressively more official," Robinson wrote recently, pointing to the 1978 Presidential Records Act, the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act and a number of other pre-Internet statutory obligations. "If the next presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet- enabled government transparency, then it should follow a counterintuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens."

In a 2008 paper titled "Government Data and the Invisible Hand," Robinson and his Princeton colleagues Harlan Yu, William P. Zeller and Edward W. Felten argued that agencies mistakenly consider their public face as presented on their Web sites to be their highest priority. They argue agencies should focus on opening their data so others can manipulate, restructure and pick it apart to conduct research with the goal of discovering answers to the problems public officials face.

The authors call on government to provide reusable data as the core of its online publishing responsibility. That could lead to innovations such as mash-ups (combining related but different data from various sources) to put information in context and create deeper and more nuanced results; discussion fora and wikis, where the public can add to a growing knowledge base; and visualization tools to find patterns in complex data sets. Exactly which features to use in which case and how to combine them is an open question.

A few agencies already have begun doing this, Robinson says. The Patent and Trademark Office makes much of its data available in an XML format, which can be easily shared, as well as in plain image format for bulk download. Third-party tools like Google Patent Search rely on that data to provide more advanced search functions. PTO also has embraced third-party innovation through Peer-to-Patent, a pilot project that allows the patent community to help review patent applications. In that case, the office is working with nongovernmental groups to allow individuals to collaborate with patent examiners.

A seasonally relevant example is the Internal Revenue Service, which has de-ployed systems that let tax preparers and software developers compete to offer electronic tax-filing options to the public. Another inspired initiative is the Securities and Exchange Commission's requirement that certain companies use XBRL, or ex-tensible business reporting language. The commission is phasing in bar code-like electronic tags during the next few years to enable a new wave of insight and analysis of publicly traded firms.

The Structured Data View

Increasing federal transparency means making information that is relevant for citizens to take part in their government available in an easier to consume format, says Aneesh Chopra, Virginia's secretary of technology. It also involves a more measured approach than a so-called data dump, in which an agency posts raw information on its Web site without structuring it or providing some context. By imposing some structure on the data, agencies can begin to help citizens provide deep analysis that would inform them and policymakers.

Transparency that looks like this, Chopra says, leads to increased participation from the public in its democratic institutions. That means "taking information and empowering citizens to incorporate that information into their own private activities-to do something with it that allows them to create something of greater value from content that the government makes available," he says. Alan Balutis, director of the business solutions group at Cisco Systems' global consulting arm, says such transparency could improve government's credibility. "There's not a lot of faith in our institutions, and I think part of that is due to the transparency element," he says. "People do want a lot more information and want to put it together in their own ways."

Is It Transparency's Time?

Balutis, whose 27-year federal career included serving as the first CIO at the Commerce Department, says this form of transparency might not necessarily be the kind of open government the Obama administration has in mind. Balutis believes transparency is in the eye of the beholder and says this administration probably will focus more on making available-in sweeping, searchable terms-the outcomes of internal government deliberations rather than opening up the internal processes themselves.

Changing the information policy paradigm within the federal government will be a challenge. Dan Chenok, senior vice president and general manager of IT services provider Pragmatics Inc. and a former technology policy executive at OMB, says he learned while working at the White House under presidents Clinton and Bush that trying to change the way agencies manage information is difficult at best.

To get there, agencies will have to clear big hurdles. In the Government Executive and Government Business Council transparency survey, nearly eight out of 10 federal managers said the key to a more open government was a heightened interest from top leadership, who get their marching orders from the White House. That was followed by about two-thirds of the executives citing a need for new technology platforms and more personnel to support them.

In addition, 57 percent said the biggest obstacle to sharing information was the security of government computer networks. That was followed by 32 percent of managers saying they were worried that allowing greater access to government information would lead to a loss of control over the agency's message.

Still, Chenok and others remain optimistic about the administration's chances. "The appetite of the country is at a different place now and will welcome changes," he says. "The environment to innovate is something that is somewhat different under the Obama administration."

That's because the president's transparency goals and broader government reform come at a time of economic crisis, when massive change and huge government programs are being rolled out quickly. Chenok says the public, and federal agencies, could be more comfortable now with the change transparency brings than they might have been otherwise. "There should be a broad understanding and agreement in terms of answering the question of how we know it's working," he says. "Because it's being done for the benefit of the citizenry, there's a popular response such that the actions around transparency feed on themselves."

Groups like the Sunlight Foundation and OMB Watch will weigh in routinely and will be tough critics if the transparency agenda isn't made real, he adds.

While much of the benchmarking will be anecdotal, measuring how much government information is available now and what is available in six months or a year could provide insight, he says. The backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests could be a valuable metric. "If government is more successful at putting things online, you should see fewer FOIA requests and the length of time it takes to resolve them may decrease," Chenok says. Another gauge is whether search engines can find information on government sites, a feature that is now lacking and widely criticized.

The Sunlight Foundation's Miller says transparency can start out simple-as in no more paper records. "I'm talking about real information in real time," she says. "I'm talking about timeliness of information."

OMB could start that process by ordering agencies to develop audits of information they collect and how they can make it available electronically, she offers. The highest priority should be opening up filings that deal with the "influence industry," including government contracts and personal financial disclosures.

As is the case with most big government initiative's, getting the technology right won't be the driver for success; making transparency work will depend on good management, says Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a media-funded coalition promoting access to government. "This is not just a technology problem, it's about managing one of our most valuable national resources: information, which helps inform the public and increase public trust," he says. "When you increase public trust in a system, the sky's the limit."

Andrew Noyes is a reporter for National Journal's CongressDaily.

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