December 29, 2008 By David Aden
Illustration: Opening government and protecting privacy are initiatives that can often travel in opposite directions.
"Transparency" is an up-and-coming buzzword that is finding its way into the national conversation at the federal, state and local levels. Its continued rise to prominence is pretty well assured when the new administration takes office because President-Elect Obama has been associated with federal transparency initiatives for years and has, at least for some federal agency CIOs, made transparency an important part of the transition dialog.
But what does transparency mean for the agency head or IT manager who has been instructed to make his or her agency "more transparent"? What are some of the key issues and architectural considerations that need to be addressed?
First, some background. Although "transparency" as a term has earned recent cachet, the debate about it is quite old, often found in discussions about government openness or implicit in discussions about public disclosure policies and the Freedom of Information Act. And while its current use focuses on opening up government processes, it has also been used as a political tool to bring about changes in the private sector. In their book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, authors Fung, Graham and Weil explore the public policy implications of transparency generally and identify "targeted transparency" as a tool available to federal, state and local leaders to help redress wrongs and increase public safety. They cite federal mandates for public disclosure of automobile rollover risks as an example of its use. In that case, the federal government required disclosure by private companies of specified product safety data with the intent of helping consumers make more informed choices and to leverage natural market forces to bring about long-term improvements. It worked.
But for the agency head, transparency means something different -- it means opening up the records, information and processes of the agency to timely public inspection and, further, opening up communication lines for the public to talk back. In other words, we're now talking about providing a means for them to comment on what they see or would like to see.
It is this kind of transparency that President-Elect Obama helped to champion by cosponsoring the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 and more recently co-sponsoring the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008 (S.3077). The president-elect's description of the 2006 Act is that it "...created the public Web site USASpending.gov, makes information about nearly all federal grants, contracts, loans and other financial assistance available to the public in a regularly updated, user-friendly and searchable format. The Web site includes the names of entities receiving federal awards, the amounts of the awards, information on the awards including transaction types, funding agencies, location and other information."
In his floor speech on June 3, 2008 introducing the 2008 bill, Senator Obama commented that the new bill "...will improve government transparency and give the American people greater tools to track and monitor nearly $2 trillion of Government spending on contracts, grants and other forms of assistance."
While transparency sounds like a good idea and has met with successes, it is not without its challenges and even contradictions. For example, during the same period that transparency has become a common talking point, so too have mandates to protect personal privacy information (PII): opening government and protecting privacy are initiatives that can often travel in opposite directions.
The following are some issues that surface immediately when a transparency program is