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Working Toward Universal Transparency
Posted On May 10, 2016
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“When public data is made freely available in open, standardized formats, it can drive transparency, community engagement, and accountability,” Code for America’s website states. “Governments around the country are building a culture and commitment to openness in City Hall across departments by making government data openly and easily available to citizens—and supporting open data with process and technology.” Transparency has become a major political issue in the past 8 years, but have the time and effort being put into open government and open data initiatives provided results that are worthy of the discussion around it? Code for America logo

Open Data Now logoIf you are looking for successful transparency and open data applications, you don’t have to look far. “People, organisations, agencies and non-profits alike, unite! Jump into the feedback loop and tell governments, and the world, when open government data is being put to good use,” Open Data Stories declares. The Open Data 500 study, part of an effort by New York University’s GovLab to conduct the “first real, comprehensive study of the use of open government data in the private sector,” is another example of the depth and expanse of this growing movement. Open Data Now and the Sunlight Foundation’s impact stories project also collect representative examples of progress made with the help of transparent, open government systems. The Open Government Partnership’s blog and Code for America’s open data playbook similarly collect information on the results of using open data and information as well as the impact that openness provides. These initiatives are designed to provide persuasive evidence in favor of prying even more openness from governmental entities.Open Government Partnership logo

Transparency and FOIA

Research is providing insights on the impacts that transparency can have. In 2013, Albert Meijer,associate professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance, reported that the quality, type, and adoption of transparency initiatives vary significantly from country to country. However, he found important “insights into the connection between the introduction of transparency and the transformation in arrangements for safeguarding school quality.” In addition, the Council of the European Union attributes the role of transparency to its transition from “a supranational to an intergovernmental body” (DOI: 10.1111/puar.12032).

Princeton University’s Harlan Yu and Yale Law School’s David G. Robinson trace the term “open government” back to the 1950s in discussions about political accountability that led to the eventual passage in 1966 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which mandates that “the public [has] the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.” Yu and Robinson’s analysis notes the increasing ambiguity in the phrase “open government” today and how this affects the evaluation of the degree of openness. “Today a regime can call itself ‘open’ if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands,” they write (DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2012489).

In the U.S., one of the main proponents of open government has been President Barack Obama. On his first day in office in 2009, he issued his memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, which declared his administration to be participatory, transparent, and collaborative. Later that year, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued its Open Government Directive memo, which provided direction to federal agencies for fulfilling the goals President Obama had outlined.

Open Data

GSA BlogIn the area of open data, research is finding that “government and public entities are sharing data on the Internet at an astonishing pace,” and yet there continues to be “a lack of agreed-upon standards for data publishing and … there are many challenges to be overcome in order for the published data to be exploited to its full potential” (DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2015.07.006).

An analysis published in Government Information Quarterly finds that these efforts are providing “new opportunities and have the potential to transform government and its interactions with the public,” in order to “create an open and transparent government.” However, “Although intuitively appealing, the concepts of transparency and privacy have many interpretations and are difficult to conceptualize, which makes it often hard to implement them” (DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2005.11.007).

Perhaps there is no better example of transparency today than body cams for police officers, which have been supported as a way to guarantee transparency in police/community interactions by potentially avoiding conflicting eyewitness reports and community concerns during situations such as the shootings of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown. Although some police forces have easily initiated body cam programs, others have resisted. In the case of the Minooka (Ill.) Police Department, it decided to eliminate the system after a 6-month testing phase. The police chief explains, “The issue was not with the functionality of the cameras, but that it became a burden for staff to fill the many requests for video footage.” Clearly, we have a long way to go with regard to transparency at the local level.

Transparency as a National Goal

According to President Obama, openness is the key to restoring citizens’ trust in their government. Since WikiLeaks’ and other unauthorized releases of information, we seem to have moved from the traditional logic of openness to what one researcher says is the “logic of radical transparency—leak, publish, and wait for the inevitable outrage. … The WikiLeaks affair also turned transparency from something rather ‘dull’ into something ‘sexy.’ Suddenly, everybody became interested in government transparency” (DOI: 10.1177/0020852311435639). This, plus the restrictions and secrecy imposed by the USA PATRIOT Act, have led many to wonder whether privacy exists at all due to the omnipresent technology-based surveillance pervading every aspect of 21st-century life.

Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), believes that the NSA “cannot survive without being more transparent.” Hayden says that although true transparency with total access to all government information is not reasonable today, “my whole community needs to be far more translucent, if not transparent, with regard to the things that it does. Otherwise we will lose political legitimacy in the eyes of the American people.”

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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