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Who Should Be Transparent, What For and How Much?

by Andrea Di Maio  |  August 6, 2010  |  6 Comments

Another great essay from “Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Collaboration in Practice”  is “Open government and open society” by Archon Fung and David Weil.

They take a very interesting spin on open government by observing that

“Unfortunately the current discourse on technology – focused as it is on accountability and issues such as corruption – produces policies and platforms that are particular sensitive to government’s mistakes but often are blind to its accomplishments. Transparency in this sense is like a school report card that only reports when a student is sent to detention, plays hooky from class, or fail courses, but does not register when she earns A in her course. The system of open government that we’re building – structures that facilitate citizens’ social and political judgments – are much more disposed to seeing the glass of government as half or even one-quarter empty, rather than mostly full”

This is a well known problem with customer feedback. How many of us send an email to customer care to praise a product or congratulate for good or excellent service levels? Even if we do, how many more times do we complain, for something that went wrong or did not live up to expectations? Case in point, I am spending a wonderful vacation in a tourist resort, food is delicious, service is top notch, and yet I’ve emailed the tour operator as well as bitched on their Facebook page about a really minor discrimination event that affected a few kids.

When it comes to government it is even worse. Especially during tough economic times, when civil servants enjoy greater job security and better pension schemes many people become unforgiving in highlighting shortcomings in service levels, and politicians build consensus around depicting government employees as lazy and ineffective people (sadly, this is the case in my country, where the minister in charge of public service and innovation started a crusade against absenteeism and for productivity increase). Although government employees in many jurisdictions are sharing the pain of their fellow citizens through furloughs and layoffs, perception remains that government and its staff is not good enough.

The problem of imbalanced feedback is not easy to solve. Personally I do not think it is possible to change people’ attitude so it is far better to take for granted that feedback will always be more skewed toward the negative, and make the most if, by learning how to distinguish useful negative feedback from pure bitching and how to engage people who may be willing to help improve service levels beyond just criticizing.

A great question that the authors ask and leads toward the central point of their article is:

“What is the problem for which transparency is the solution?”

I love this, as it’s a question I’ve asked almost every time I have discussed open government plans and initiatives (see a previous blog post and a Gartner research note, for which client access is required).

What’s in it for me? Where “me” means “agency”, “program”, “politician”, “director”, “employee”, “citizen” and so forth. Transparency looks like a given, like an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (better policies, better services, lower costs, etc).

After all, governments are – by their very nature – much more transparent than other industries.

Take the procurement process as an example. For how inefficient, ineffective and screwed up it may look like and for how many calls are made by government officials and suppliers alike to change the process, it is undoubtedly more transparent than the process used in other industries.

Not to forget Freedom of Information, which we tend to dismiss as a cumbersome legacy of the past but still gives the press (and each of us) the ability to exercise control on public administrations.

And this leads to the central argument in the article.

“Many large organizations in society – not just national govts, but also corporations, social service agencies and public service providers – create harms and risks to individuals, and transparency is a general ethos that can help citizens understand these harms, protect themselves, and press organizations of all kinds to behave in more socially responsive ways”

We have countless examples, from Enron to Lehman Brothers through Parmalat, where people have lost their money and sometimes most of their savings, with existing checks and balances proving unfit to discover and intercept problems before they get out of proportion.

The authors continue:

“Should transparency enthusiasts invest their energies in open government or in creating an open society in which organizations of all sorts – in particular private corporations – are much more transparent? …

Therefore a very substantial part of the energies of transparency advocates should be redirected toward making corporations and other organizations in society meet the same standards increasingly demanded of open government”

The final call is that

“The current sophisticated movement for open government should expand its agenda and become a movement to Open Society”

Definitely a great point that I am sure many would share. I’d love to see the debate around open government to be rebalanced toward where technology can and should provide greater transparency for each of us to have better services and ultimately a better life.

The web and social networks have already given us greater bargaining power with product and service suppliers. We can compare prices, options, products, financial performances. We are getting further insights from socializing with employees of companies who will occasionally leak information, still within the boundaries of their code of conduct, but enough to mash it up with other information and offer us a closer look at how companies perform and operate beyond what we would get from a standard report to shareholders.

On the other hand, the more we demand transparency on government and on corporations, the more we are stretching the boundaries of personal privacy. Knowing more about an agency or a company, implies to know more about their officers, employees, and ultimately us all.

So how much open society are we prepared to accept before we feel that our privacy is at stake?

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Category: web-20-in-government  

Tags: open-government  transparency  

Andrea Di Maio
Managing VP
19 years at Gartner
33 years IT industry

Andrea Di Maio is a managing vice president for public sector in Gartner Research, covering government and education. His personal research focus is on digital government strategies, open government, the business value of IT, smart cities, and the impact of technology on the future of government Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Who Should Be Transparent, What For and How Much?

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  4. This “problem of imbalanced feedback” IMHO is mostly non-existing. Governments are still in control of huge propaganda machines, and if they fail to communicate their own achievements – well, they deserve no pity! 🙂

  5. […] is an analyst at (and VP of) Gartner Research, where he focuses on e-government strategies. Today, he discusses an essay from Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in […]

  6. […] Data information: How visual tools can transform lives […]

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