Top 10 Measurements for Transparency


Weekend before this most recent one, Government 2.0 Camp took place here in Washington and by all accounts it was a huge success. Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and Sunlight’s senior technology advisor, led a panel discussion about what the meaning of transparency is in the Obama administration. During the discussion, Andrew and the participants came up with “Top 10 Measurements for Transparency.” And it’s quite a comprehensive list.

Here’s a photo of the board they were taking notes on:


Here’s a short video of Andrew quickly running through the measurements:

Ten Measures for Transparency Success from Gov 2.0 on Vimeo.

Here’s a quick outline of the 10 measurements:

1.    Open data: The federal government should make all data searchable, findable and accessible. 2.    Disclose spending data: The government should disclose how it is spending taxpayer dollars, who is spending it and how it’s being spent. 3.    Procurement data: How does the government decide where the money is getting spent, who gets it, how they are spending it and how can we measure success. 4.    Open portal for public request for information: There should be a central repository for all Freedom of Information Act requests that are public to that people can see in real time when the requests come in, how fast the government responds to them. 5.    Distributed data: The government should make sure it builds redundancy in their system so that data is not held in just one location, but held in multiple places in case of a disaster, terrorist attack or some other reason where the data is damaged. Redundancy would guarantee government could rebuild the data for future use. 6.    Open meetings: Government meetings should be open to the public so that citizens can tell who is trying to influence government. All schedules should be published as soon as they happen so that people can see who is meeting with whom and who is trying to influence whom. 7.    Open government research: Currently, when government conducts research, it usually does not report the data it collects until the project is finished. Government should report its research data while its being collected in beta form. This would be a measure of transparency and would change the relationship that people have to government research as it is being collected. 8.    Collection transparency: Government should disclose how it is collecting information, for whom are they collecting the data, and why is it relevant. The public should have the ability to judge whether or not it valuable to them, and giving them the ability to comment on it. 9.    Allowing the public to speak directly to the president: Recently, we saw the president participate in something called “Open for Questions,” where he gave the public access to ask questions. This allowed him to burst his bubble and be in touch with the American public directly is another measure of transparency. 10.    Searchable, crawl able and accessible data: If the government were to make all data searchable, crawl able and accessible we would go along way in realizing all the goals presented at the Gov 2.0 Camp.

I wanted to note all this for posterity. We’d love to hear you comments and thoughts about it.

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  • Ellen,

    Thanks for the summary of this session.

    I’m particularly interested in measuring how online engagement/participation exercises impact upon the policy process. This includes measuring what information is held as a result of this activity and how it is used and or shared across departments, if at all.

    Anyone going to edemocracy camp2 in DC this Sunday? It would be good to continue this important discussion.

  • Really enjoyed your keynote at the Web 2.0 expo, and have included it in my Girls in Tech blog review as one of the top keynotes at Web 2.0 this year.

    Thanks for your hard work, Ellen! I would love to connect and help you in the cause!

  • Thanks for all these great ideas! Ellen

  • Kimo Crossman

    On #2) procurement data – since open government is often justified by saying that access to this info can reduce waste and corruptions:

    Many open gov. laws allow withholding of predecisional information or intragency discussions or anything marked draft – this includes draft RFP’s, draft contracts, scoring of RFP or contract bids. San Francisco broke new ground with its Sunshine ordinance which waives the draft exemption in most cases and provides for real-time access to contract negotiations when it is down to one bid and other scenarios. This includes a requirement to summarize oral positions! Deliberative or Executive Privilege is sometimes invoked to withhold this information on the myth that advisors won’t feel free to provide their unvarnished opinion – obviously the solution is to provide that information orally = which has always been an option.

    Also on procurement data – I would suggest that it include scans or invoices paid, check requests, Purchase Orders and actual checks remitted since this often provides significant information not captured otherwise in payment data.

    Waiver of Draft in SF law
    (a) Drafts and Memoranda.
    (1) Except as provided in subparagraph (2), no preliminary draft or department memorandum, whether in printed or electronic form, shall be exempt from disclosure under Government Code Section 6254, subdivision (a) or any other provision. If such a document is not normally kept on file and would otherwise be disposed of, its factual content is not exempt under subdivision (a). Only the recommendation of the author may, in such circumstances, be withheld as exempt.
    (2) Draft versions of an agreement being negotiated by representatives of the City with some other party need not be disclosed immediately upon creation but must be preserved and made available for public review for 10 days prior to the presentation of the agreement for approval by a policy body, unless the body finds that and articulates how the public interest would be unavoidably and substantially harmed by compliance with this 10 day rule, provided that policy body as used in this subdivision does not include committees. In the case of negotiations for a contract, lease or other business agreement in which an agency of the City is offering to provide facilities or services in direct competition with other public or private entities that are not required by law to make their competing proposals public or do not in fact make their proposals public, the policy body may postpone public access to the final draft agreement until it is presented to it for approval.


    Transparency of contracts bids proposals:

    (e) Contracts, Bids and Proposals
    (1) Contracts, contractors” bids, responses to requests for proposals and all other records of communications between the department and persons or firms seeking contracts shall be open to inspection immediately after a contract has been awarded. Nothing in this provision requires the disclosure of a private person”s or organization”s net worth or other proprietary financial data submitted for qualification for a contract or other benefit until and unless that person or organization is awarded the contract or benefit. All bidders and contractors shall be advised that information provided which is covered by this subdivision will be made available to the public upon request. Immediately after any review or evaluation or rating of responses to a Request for Proposal (“RFP”) has been completed, evaluation forms and score sheets and any other documents used by persons in the RFP evaluation or contractor selection process shall be available for public inspection. The names of scorers, graders or evaluators, along with their individual ratings, comments, and score sheets or comments on related documents, shall be made immediately available after the review or evaluation of a RFP has been completed.
    (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of this subdivision or any other provision of this ordinance, the Director of Public Health may withhold from disclosure proposed and final rates of payment for managed health care contracts if the Director determines that public disclosure would adversely affect the ability of the City to engage in effective negotiations for managed health care contracts. The authority to withhold this information applies only to contracts pursuant to which the City (through the Department of Public Health) either pays for health care services or receives compensation for providing such services, including mental health and substance abuse services, to covered beneficiaries through a pre-arranged rate of payment. This provision also applies to rates for managed health care contracts for the University of California, San Francisco, if the contract involves beneficiaries who receive services provided jointly by the City and University. This provision shall not authorize the Director to withhold rate information from disclosure for more than three years.
    (3) During the course of negotiations for:
    (i) personal, professional, or other contractual services not subject to a competitive process or
    where such a process has arrived at a stage where there is only one qualified or responsive bidder;
    (ii) leases or permits having total anticipated revenue or
    expense to the City and County of five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000) or more or
    having a term of ten years or more; or
    (iii) any franchise agreements,
    all documents exchanged and related to the position of the parties, including draft contracts, shall be made available for public inspection and copying upon request. In the event that no records are prepared or exchanged during negotiations in the above-mentioned categories, or the records exchanged do not provide a meaningful representation of the respective positions, the city attorney or city representative familiar with the negotiations shall, upon a written request by a member of the public, prepare written summaries of the respective positions within five working days following the final day of negotiation of any given week. The summaries will be available for public inspection and copying. Upon completion of negotiations, the executed contract, including the dollar amount of said contract, shall be made available for inspection and copying.
    At the end of each fiscal year, each City department shall provide to the Board of Supervisors a list of all sole source contracts entered into during the past fiscal year. This list shall be made available for inspection and copying as provided for elsewhere in this Article.

  • Re #6, open meetings, why not open up government meetings to online citizen access, via webex, with audio and video, open up via library computers, school labs etc. This is common in business today, speakers present, take questions, attendees chat with each other, breakout into groups etc.

  • Ellen and Others,

    I thought you might be interested in the following white paper.

    The ideas attached are a product of 10 years of pioneering government transparency with state and local government. Our body of work includes putting over 100,000 public meetings online or the equivalent of every executive branch advisory board / council for the last 12 years.

    I would love your thoughts on and feedback on the approaches in this paper.

    Most Sincerely,


  • Shane Harris

    I would like to see a special effort made to make Department of War (err, I mean Defense) data open. It’s going to be the hardest and should get the most effort.

  • mihaz

    Where are open standards for file formats and protocols?

    For example, the Obama administration is forcing you using Adobe Flash Player RTMP and other proprietary technologies.

  • It might also be useful to have a method allowing citizens to be notified when specific information is made public. I imagine something similar the function on ebay that lets you know when a specific item you’re looking for has gone on sale.

    For instance, I’d love to be notified as soon as the beta research on alternative treatments for PTSD are posted.

  • An excellent list. I’m hard-pressed to drum up anything useful to add.

    That said, I do like to harp on drawing attention to the way transparency is often conflated with mere visibility. I.e. “Showing is not the same thing as telling”. My neologism for this is “cellophanatic”.

    To be cellophanatic means exposing your errors too, the warts, cuts, and scars of failed research, weak policies, the heat of debate, unimplemented or weakly implemented strategies. Covering anything is to revert from transparency to opacity.

    Naturally, there are limits, extremes, where a dumb militancy about upholding transparency is inappropriate, dangerous, or not in the public good. Caveats must be flown. For instance, an administration charged with the responsibility of providing non-partisan advice must be allowed to “speak truth to power”. In some instances, the administration might be transparent at its peril, opening up public scapegoating by politicians. This has happened all too often, and public servants do not deserve to be tarred and feathered in the public political arena.

    We need good research on this aspect of transparency because it flies in the face of a professional public service value of at least the Westminster system–anonymity.

    Your list does attend to the finer distinction quite well, I think. And I’m sure you’ll agree we have much more to learn, to explore, to theorize, to practice.

    Thanks for provoking thought.

    Bob Ashley, CAO
    Town of Berwick, Nova Scotia, Canada

  • I hate to make assumptions, but I’ll guess you’re referring to the U.S. government? Because other global governments already do many of those bullets.