Government Technology

Transparency vs. Privacy and Security: What's an Agency to Do?



December 29, 2008 By

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?

Government Transparency

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."

Privacy, Security and Other Contradictions

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


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Comments

Al Sherwood    |    Commented January 6, 2009

David, Thanks for addressing a key topic that needs more coverage. I agree that providing raw data feeds is worth the work. The value of the data can increase exponentially with lots of people outside of government "cutting and dicing" it in a way that meets their needs. Also, it is a great way to get at the heart of transparency problems as demonstrated by the old saw: "Figures lie and liars figure." On the other side of the argument, I don't think government should only supply raw data. That would assume that agencies might be able to substitute data for government reports. In addition to supplying raw data, government also has a responsibility to the public to do an analysis of what the employees and their leaders of federal agencies believe the data means. As consumers of their own information they can then tell the public which actions they propose based upon upon the official analysis. Also, for individuals or groups with few resources, which rely on summary information derived from the raw data, reports may be valuable. In the name of good customer service agencies should keep track of the most frequent information requested by individuals and turn these into faqs and reports that could be published on websites in static or dynamic form. When I supervised a research unit for state government, we always made both our reports and our raw data available to the public (minus any personally identifiable information, of course).

Al Sherwood    |    Commented January 6, 2009

David, Thanks for addressing a key topic that needs more coverage. I agree that providing raw data feeds is worth the work. The value of the data can increase exponentially with lots of people outside of government "cutting and dicing" it in a way that meets their needs. Also, it is a great way to get at the heart of transparency problems as demonstrated by the old saw: "Figures lie and liars figure." On the other side of the argument, I don't think government should only supply raw data. That would assume that agencies might be able to substitute data for government reports. In addition to supplying raw data, government also has a responsibility to the public to do an analysis of what the employees and their leaders of federal agencies believe the data means. As consumers of their own information they can then tell the public which actions they propose based upon upon the official analysis. Also, for individuals or groups with few resources, which rely on summary information derived from the raw data, reports may be valuable. In the name of good customer service agencies should keep track of the most frequent information requested by individuals and turn these into faqs and reports that could be published on websites in static or dynamic form. When I supervised a research unit for state government, we always made both our reports and our raw data available to the public (minus any personally identifiable information, of course).

Al Sherwood    |    Commented January 6, 2009

David, Thanks for addressing a key topic that needs more coverage. I agree that providing raw data feeds is worth the work. The value of the data can increase exponentially with lots of people outside of government "cutting and dicing" it in a way that meets their needs. Also, it is a great way to get at the heart of transparency problems as demonstrated by the old saw: "Figures lie and liars figure." On the other side of the argument, I don't think government should only supply raw data. That would assume that agencies might be able to substitute data for government reports. In addition to supplying raw data, government also has a responsibility to the public to do an analysis of what the employees and their leaders of federal agencies believe the data means. As consumers of their own information they can then tell the public which actions they propose based upon upon the official analysis. Also, for individuals or groups with few resources, which rely on summary information derived from the raw data, reports may be valuable. In the name of good customer service agencies should keep track of the most frequent information requested by individuals and turn these into faqs and reports that could be published on websites in static or dynamic form. When I supervised a research unit for state government, we always made both our reports and our raw data available to the public (minus any personally identifiable information, of course).

David Aden    |    Commented January 6, 2009

Al, I totally agree with you. I saw information suggesting both alternatives and one of the studies I reference tended to push the data feeds side of the equation. While I think that is important, I agree that a blended approach makes the most sense. You've articulated some important reasons in favor of government continuing to report while offering data feeds -- thank you!

David Aden    |    Commented January 6, 2009

Al, I totally agree with you. I saw information suggesting both alternatives and one of the studies I reference tended to push the data feeds side of the equation. While I think that is important, I agree that a blended approach makes the most sense. You've articulated some important reasons in favor of government continuing to report while offering data feeds -- thank you!

David Aden    |    Commented January 6, 2009

Al, I totally agree with you. I saw information suggesting both alternatives and one of the studies I reference tended to push the data feeds side of the equation. While I think that is important, I agree that a blended approach makes the most sense. You've articulated some important reasons in favor of government continuing to report while offering data feeds -- thank you!


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