Open Government Initiative Discussion Phase: Transparency Principles

Yesterday we talked about the transparency suggestions from the Open Government Brainstorm. Today, we move from idea-gathering into this discussion phase. We want to use this series of blog postings to inform how we think about creating actionable recommendations on open government. To reiterate, this initial public engagement process on open government policy will take place in three phases (brainstorming, discussion, drafting). Following this initial process, we will distill the input received here, from submissions of proposals in From the Inbox, and from government experts and develop a set of draft recommendations for both public and inter-governmental review. These recommendations will, in turn, help to guide the development of government-wide policy on transparency, participation, and collaboration.
In this Discussion Phase, we start by thinking more deeply about the principles that should define transparency and guide our policy priorities.
Transparency extends both to data maintained by the government and to making government operations more open. As President Obama said in his January 21st Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, the goal of transparency is to "promote accountability and provide information for citizens about what their Government is doing." Additionally, transparency facilitates public participation and provides people with information that can generate both economic and social benefit.
Starting with principles is an important first step in achieving these goals. Principles lay the foundation for future discussions about which specific policies to adopt to make government more transparent and which actions to prioritize.
The Challenge of Establishing Principles
There are two primary challenges in talking about transparency principles – defining and prioritizing:
  • Defining: If transparency is to be implemented meaningfully in government, we need to agree upon a more specific definition of what it means to be transparent. Drafting a set of principles, which explain what we mean by transparent data and transparent operations, helps us to do this.
  • Prioritizing: Your government is looking for guidance about how to prioritize the different principles of transparency. While many decisions will not be either/or choices, some tradeoffs will be inevitable. We need to understand which buckets of principles make sense in a given context. Prioritizing demands understanding what each principle means in practice and then weighing the relative costs and benefits.
An Example: Airline On-Time Data
A concrete example may be helpful to bring this discussion to life. Consider airline on-time performance data and information on causes of flight delays provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics – available on Data.gov.
Having this information be publicly available might ensure more informed regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration, in which case data accuracy might be paramount. If the goal is to help travelers make better-informed travel decisions then the information must be comprehensive. If transparency serves the goal of enabling companies to build information-related businesses that incorporate on-time data then timeliness is of the essence.
An agency would need to weigh the competing principles – accuracy, comprehensiveness, and timeliness – in prioritizing its investments. Waiting to publish a complete data set for all the airlines might force us to sacrifice some timeliness in relaying that information to the public. Therefore, we need to consider how to prioritize among different definitions to achieve different goals.
What We Learned in Phase I
The Brainstorm phase yielded a number of suggested transparency principles and definitions for those principles. For example,
  • Adopt the eight Open Government Data Principlesdeveloped in 2007 by an open government working group in Sebastopol, California, namely that data should be: complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine-processable, non-discriminatory, non-proprietary, and license-free;
  • Adopt the Carter Center Plan of Action for the Advancement of the Right of Access to Information;
  • Adopt "crowd-sourcing" as a principle, wherever it makes sense to evaluate data;
  • Ask government agencies to explain all policy decisions and the rationales behind them in readable language (i.e., in plain English)
Launching the Discussion
When making Open Government recommendations, we may want to include a set of transparency principles. We need your help articulating those principles, their definitions and the rationale behind them. We need to explain what they mean in practice and prioritize among them. Specifically:
  • Which of the above-mentioned principles – or others – should we adopt? Provide us with your insights into the costs and benefits of each. Let us know if we’ve missed the output of other working groups or governments who have previously created lists of principles that should be integrated into this discussion.
  • Help us to flesh out what each of these potential principles would mean in practice. How do we articulate a single set of transparency principles with enough flexibility to apply Government-wide?
  • Share your insights into how to prioritize principles relative to each other. For instance, as highlighted by our airline example, is it better for an agency to publish some data faster, possibly at the expense of structure and comprehensiveness, or to wait longer for a more complete roll-out? Help us to identify and weigh the pros and cons of such tradeoffs.
  • Weigh in on the topic of if-and-when these principles should be treated as hard and fast rules versus as standards or norms. For example, rules might better promote clear accountability, while standards might allow for more flexibility and entrepreneurship within government agencies.
In discussing these issues, please try to follow three important guidelines:
  • Be succinct: We find that a short, well-structured comment is often easier for others to grasp and respond to than long laundry lists of ideas.
  • Be topical: To focus the discussion, please post only on the topic of transparency principles. Unrelated comments may be flagged by community participants and then subject to removal by a moderator. You can find the terms of participation here.
  • Be responsive: Build on what others have posted, tie your insights to previous comments whenever possible, and help us to drive this discussion forward.
How to Participate
To share your thoughts, go to the Office of Science & Technology Policy's blog.  You must be registered to comment.  Once you are registered and logged in, you will see the links to "Submit Comment" and "Leave a Reply" at the bottom of the page, or next to comments posted by other contributors.  In addition, you can improve the visibility of well thought-out and important points by voting on posted comments.  To vote, simply click on either the "plus" or "minus" icon to the left of the name of the comment’s author.  If you come across a comment that violates the Terms of Participation, you should "flag" it by clicking on the red icon to its right.  Please flag with care.  The appropriate away to express disagreement is by posting a reply to the comment, not by flagging. For more about how to use this blog, see our Real-World Guide to Using this Blog.
Transparency is critical to open government. As the President discussed in his Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, openness ensures the public trust, promotes efficiency and effectiveness in government, and strengthens our democracy. We look forward to your continued thoughtful engagement as we strive toward these larger goals.
Beth Noveck is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government.

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