Blog post

Open Government Ideas: A Bit Less Transparency May Help

By Andrea Di Maio | February 24, 2010 | 2 Comments

open government data

The other day I posted about the somewhat disappointing uniformity of ideas submitted to various US federal agencies through the IdeaScale tool. Some read my observations as a criticism to the tool itself or to the approach suggested by the Open Government Directive and nurtured by GSA of using an idea collection and rating tool.

This was not my intention. There is no perfect tool for something as new as “open government” and it is far better to have an imperfect but affordable tool to make mistakes from which to learn, than spend an awful amount of money and time to choose a tool that hits the desk too late.

Nobody has the recipe for open government. Not the OMB, OSTP or GSA, nor the most progressive open government advocates in various agencies, nor commentators or analysts like myself. Actually our life is definitely easier than our clients’ one, as they are those who have to comply with – and possibly get value out of – the open government directive.

IdeaScale has the drawbacks of similar tools, including Google Moderator, as it overlaps idea collection and idea rating, hence pushing ideas that get high ratings at the top, making new and potentially better ideas difficult to locate. Luckily enough this is not a huge problem in the current phase, since, with few exceptions, ideas submitted to agencies are in the few dozens. Still, aren’t people likely to click on the “most popular” tab, scroll a little and possibly vote on ideas that are already well rated, given their limited attention span?

The good news is that this is not at all wasted effort. Ultimately agencies will have a list of ideas and they can (and should) cross-check them with those from other agencies. Ideas should be clustered, tweaked, adjusted, exchanged between agencies, and this may ultimately deliver a good idea which is relevant for the agency.

Now, whereas this is entirely possible, what may play against it is – indeed – transparency. The fear that in order to be transparent one should describe in excruciating detail why an idea is being tweaked and grouped with another one and possibly applied by an agency that did not get that submission in the first place. Also, I can hardly imagine how discouraging the prospect would be of getting a flood of FOIA requests about how ideas were finally selected.

This is a good example of the risk of transparency paralysis. It is easier to pick one of the top rated ideas and choose it as the “flagship initiative” rather than doing any effort to make it better and more relevant using the agency’s own resources (i.e. people) to transform, improve and mash it up with others

I would argue that transparency is the goal more than the means of these initiatives. If a little bit of obscurity helps achieve this goal, so be it.

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2 Comments

  • Wonderful (or woeful, depending of the point of view) of the recursiveness between participation and FOIA.

  • Too much transparency will result in:
    – populist behavior,
    – avoiding discussing unpopular (but necessary) decisions,
    – moving true discussions from official to unofficial forums (social media may be?)

    Been there, seen that in my country – Russia.