Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Panel Discussion: Transparency and the Obama Administration

Panel Discussion: Transparency and the Obama Administration

By Dennis D. McDonald

On Monday Dec. 3, 2012 at the invitation of Hudson Hollister of the Data Transparency Coalition I attended the “Transparency and the Obama Administration” panel discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington DC sponsored by the Congressional Transparency Caucus. Panelists included:

  • Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
  • Hudson Hollister, Executive Director, the Data Transparency Coalition
  • Josh Gerstein, White House Reporter, POLITICO
  • Moderator Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel at the Sunlight Foundation and Director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency

What follows below is my own interpretation and commentary on what I heard. (The video of the panel discussion is available via C-SPAN.)

The general tone: negative with occasional positives

The general tone of the panel was that the Obama administration started out strong in terms of promoting government transparency but, along the way, retrenched by reducing responsiveness to “freedom of information” inquiries. At the same time, according to panelists, the Administration became “enamored” of technological approaches to engaging collaboratively via social media with the public, even though such approaches don’t necessarily provide a direct path to influencing policy.

The panel’s tone was not all negative. According to Hollister, for example, a real transparency “brightspot” has been the activity of the Recovery Accountability Transparency Board. It has provided access to a vast amount of standardized data on federal stimulus expenditures. For what it’s worth, one of this blog’s most consistently popular posts originally published in February 2009 was Challenges Facing and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Also, researchers have subsequently reviewed the actions of the systems and processes surrounding the stimulus fund reporting in generally positive terms; see the IBM Center for the Business of Government’s Recovery Act Transparency: Learning from the Experience of States.

Still, several panelists commented that other countries such as the UK, Finland, Belgium, and the Netherlands are  ahead of the U.S., especially in terms of their handling of “freedom of information” requests. Unfortunately there was no exploration for the reasons for such differences, some of which, I believe, may be just as much related to the smaller scale of European government operations as to greater agility.

Not all types of transparency are “created equal” 

In my opinion, one of the issues transparency advocates need to address is that not all types of transparency are “created equal.”

Even though there might be a theoretical or even an ethical equivalence between a freedom of information request for meeting attendance data, and consistent access to a program’s expenditure data so that “big data” analyses can be performed, the systems and processes supporting the two and the manner in which they are governed are rarely identical.

For example, even if a department’s head takes a leadership role and decrees that all meeting minutes for non-confidential meetings will be made available within 24 hours to any public requestor, the same type of response to a request for expenditure data associated with the department head’s program might be impossible to supply within 24 hours if one or more of the following types of situations applies:

  1. The requested data is not in a form or format that can be easily retrieved or analyzed.
  2. The only person with the necessary analytical skills for pulling the requested data together is on vacation.
  3. Multiple financial systems with varying access protocols need to be queried before the requested data can be synthesized.
  4. For some of the records from which the data need to be pulled contain confidential individual identifiers in the process for extracting the nonconfidential data has not been automated.
  5. The source data need to be delivered in a spreadsheet form but are available only electronically in a.pdf format that is not easy to extract.

When we are tossing around terms like “transparency” and “open data ” we need to be specific about the type of data and data requester were talking about. We need to be clear on describing the situations where it is actually possible to regularize and standardize the processes by which data are made public. This is one of the reasons I have been developing a framework of transparency program planning concepts to help guide the design process.

The elephant In the room: The costs of transparency

When I asked the panelists the question, “Whose responsibility is it to take transparency costs into account when legislation or regulations requiring data transparency are being developed?” all agreed there is no simple answer to this question in these times of dire fiscal restraint.

No one wants to be forced to support or require additional program expenditures these days without a really good justification. Anne Weismann referred to the cost of transparency as the “Elephant in the Room.”

This is not the first time I’ve heard discussions like these. If you’ve ever tried to measure proposed information system benefits or to generate ROI analyses or business cases to help choose among different information system options, you’ll recognize the drill.

In the private sector, at least, some of your options can be tied to increased profits. Comparisons become more muddled if the product or service being quantified is complex and involves multiple benefit and costs streams. Plus, the further you get from being able to convincingly link your options to a company’s profits, the more you have to fall back on factors such as increased efficiency or reduced cost. Even these can be difficult to quantify if the options you’re evaluating is more administrative or infrastructure oriented.

In the public sector as in the private sector program justification ultimately depends on leadership and the leader’s ability to push for and support a solution, even in the face of difficult to quantify costs and benefits.

Some have tried to generate standard models to support making such estimates (see Doug Hadden’s paper The Real ROI for Government Open Data) but much remains to be done.

As one of the panelists pointed out, while we must always keep a long-term strategy in mind that we can push towards, in the meantime we must still make laws and manage government. When we add language to new legislation or re-authorization legislation requiring more transparency, we take into account the limited resources government employees are already working with. 

Again, these types of discussions are not that different from what I’ve seen in the private sector, especially in larger or more complex organizations. Often what ultimately makes the difference is that new systems or requirements justify the shifting of resources from older or less efficient systems and processes and to better sharing of information. Cost implications of new or changed program legislation becomes paramount when Senate and House versions of legislation are reconciled. Ideally, the affected agency and constituents will have a say on how the costs issues are addressed during both the legislative writing and reconciliation processes.

Financial data transparency is the key

The overarching importance of financial and expenditure data transparency was emphasized by several panelists. Agencies don’t always share information as much as they could. This results in waste and duplication. This is one of the reasons that Hollister’s trade group is emphasizing the standardization and sharing of financial information to promote transparency. As Jim Harper of the Cato Institute pointed out to me recently, both conservatives and liberals can agree on the need for better access to financial and spending data regarding government programs.

Concluding comments

The panelists were only cautiously optimistic that leadership to promote better sharing of standardized data will emerge.

Will the Obama administration provide the necessary leadership? That remains to be seen, despite Obama’s history in the Senate promoting transparency through legislation.

I suspect that the move towards improved standardization and sharing, especially of financial data, will occur gradually as the community of legislators, legislative staff, executive branch management (both IT and non-IT) and industry experts continue to grow and share information.

In my opinion, pushing the concept of “accountability” takes you just so far. What will be needed is for members of the currently very diverse  “transparency community” to continue to share information about both small and large wins, taking into account the benefits and increased efficiencies that transparency offers not only to groups and individuals outside the government but also to the agencies and programs themselves and the people they serve. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, though, financial transparency should not be viewed as an end in itself; we also need to be concerned with the effectiveness and efficiency of the government programs we are funding.

I believe the “wins” are there, but we need to do a better job of publicizing the benefits to the agencies and to their constituents. As the panelist seemed to agree, though, this won’t happen without the Obama administration’s leadership. Hopefully they are getting the message.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald

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