Government Experience Design: Transparency

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

Over the next few blog posts, I intend to expand somewhat on each of the four points I listed originally in positing the idea of government experience design: transparency, listening, adaptability, and open-source. I aim to provide concrete ideas for how each of these items might be implemented within government to improve its ability to respond to and engage citizens.

What is transparency? According to Wikipedia[1],

Transparency, as used in science, engineering, business, the humanities and in a social context more generally, implies openness, communication, and accountability. Transparency is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. For example, a cashier making change at a point of sale by segregating a customer’s large bills, counting up from the sale amount, and placing the change on the counter in such a way as to invite the customer to verify the amount of change demonstrates transparency.

This is certainly a workable definition, but for this post, I will define it as the creation of a culture and an attitude within an organization such that anyone interested can easily examine and otherwise critique the inner workings of the organization.

As I stated in the original post, transparency should be the first measure of government. What does this mean?

  1. Reasonable requests for information will be granted, no questions asked. As long as an information request can be identified as reasonable and not putting the recipient or provider of that information at undue risk, that information should be provided without requiring knowledge of how that information will be used. This excludes information that is sensitive or that could harm others by having it released.
  2. Clear and unassailable standards for the release of information will be provided. Both the providers of information and those who request that information should be able to determine, without having to dig through pages of text, whether their request will be granted or denied. The rules for what information will be provided when should be provided in plain, easy-to-understand English. A clear process for appealing information release decisions will be provided.
  3. The relationships between different pieces of data will be clearly identified when revealing the relationships between data objects does not create a harmful situation. Users should be able to tell at a high level where information came from and how information is used by others that consume that information. These relationships need not be stated in any great detail except in cases where that detail is a significant component of the data itself. Phrases like “this data is used by the Department of Redundancy Department to determine eligibility for certain programs” are acceptable so long as a more precise level of detail is not needed to make the usage of that data clear.
  4. Information owners shall be identified when appropriate. The people that own the information provided should be identified in case the information needs to be corrected or otherwise revised. This identification should, at minimum, identify an office and an e-mail address or phone number, though greater detail can be provided as needed.

This all covers external information shared with citizens, but such measures can actually improve the operation of government. Knowledge of who owns what makes it easier to interact between government systems. A clear statement of the relationship between data elements – even if those relationships cannot be publicly revealed – serves to improve understanding of how information is used by systems.

How can technology be used to improve transparency? Much of the data that can be revealed and the relationships between those pieces of data can be served electronically without human intervention. Indeed, many – if not all – of the items listed above can be satisfied using web sites.

But we must not also rule out the possibility that people cannot directly access online resources or do not have a sufficient understanding of the field to know exactly what questions to ask in order to get the information they want or need. Thus, multiple methods of getting this information should be provided, and stewards that are familiar enough with the domain should be able to guide users to what they need, again, without needing to know about why that information is required.

Why do I put such an emphasis on not needing to know the usage context of information, even though this context can be useful to the organization? Government data and information operates very differently than if the same data were owned by private entities; by definition, it belongs to the people. Government should not need to know how the people they serve will use it because they are stewards of that information for the very people making the request for it.

[1], retrieved January 19, 2013. Return to Post

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