“Powerful New Instrument For Change”

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Over the weekend, The Boston Globe published an important op-ed about President Obama’s transparency and the right-to-know agenda, written by Mary Graham, co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. Repairing current yet “broken” transparency policies should be President Obama’s first priority, Graham writes, and by doing so he would create a “powerful new instrument for change.”

Current transparency policies don’t really work very well. The assumptions that led to them  are correct, that is, citizens too often make crucial health care, investment and other matters,without the input of reliable information. Graham argues for more facts to be “presented in standardized, timely, and understandable ways so people can compare mortgage lenders, credit card deals, surgery outcomes, and more.” Transparency policies fail today because they don’t allow accurate comparisons, they’re vulnerable to politics and conflicts of interests and disclosure rules rarely keep pace with new risks. And I’d add, an awful lot of that information isn’t available online and little is available in real time. It isn’t disclosure if it’s not online.

She advises the new Administration to communicate transparency policies in common and clear language so they can be understood by ordinary citizens. The Admnistration should mandate that the people within government designing the policies communicate and collaborate with each other. And the agencies should find ways to track unforeseen risks.

I would add a few other agenda items for the executive branch that are vital to fostering true transparency. In the Web 2.0 era data must be interoperable. In other words, all government databases must be made to work together. We believe that the administration needs to set up a strong central authority to control information policy, funding and standards. The  naming of  Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra to the positions of federal CTO and CIO, respectively, are positive developments on this front. And finally, government should allow and encourage citizens to participate in government through collaborative projects, like the successful Peer to Patent Project.

Graham writes persuasively, “Neither the economy nor health care can be fixed unless transparency policies are fixed…Markets and ordinary citizens can cope with risks as long as they can understand them.”

That sounds like transparency to me.

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