Introducing the Cycle of Transparency


Government transparency is that rarest of political phenomena — a great idea with support across the political spectrum and popularity among the public. Yet, here we are in the 21st century with every tool we would need to make government more transparent and accountable, and still we are operating with a government that often behaves as it did in the 19th century.

So, transparent government is a good thing, but we do not yet have one. Now what?

It’s clear that there is a breakdown between conceptual support for the idea of government transparency and enacting the changes necessary to make it so. There is fear and resistance to change inside government that requires cultural, political, and attitude adjustments. And there’s a large gap between the good intentions of citizens and watchdog groups and think tanks and reporters, and translating those good intentions into effective results. Many people want to act, but they rarely know how or where to begin.

For many, the concept of transparency still simply feels too vague to get behind in a meaningful way. People strongly support transparency in theory, but don’t know what they would need to do, or how they would need to think, to create the “open, transparent government” we talk about.

We’ve grappled with these challenges at Sunlight since our founding four years ago, and have been thinking about it with increased urgency over the last year in particular. How do we connect all the necessary parties and resources, and how do we put them together and act on them in the right way to actually make government more open and transparent?

Perhaps even more challenging: how do we explain it to people in a way that helps them know where they fit?

Now, the pieces are falling into place.

We know that at the heart of the open, transparent government we seek is ‘open’ government data that is available online and in real-time.

Government information should be as accessible to us as information about the weather, sports scores or knowing what’s going on in the stock market — and we need it to be this way so we can both hold government accountable and create new enterprise with what is made available to us.

In order to reach our vision of an open government – or an online, real-time government – we also know there are a number of “things” that must occur – and not just occur once, but continue to happen over time and continuously reinforce each other along the way.

This “Cycle of Transparency” demonstrates, in one image, the specific actions and the variety of actors that need to work together to create the open, transparent government we seek. We hope this graphic can be a useful tool in thinking about how to make city, state, federal, and even international governments more transparent.

Each type of actor and action complements the others in the Cycle to make every other element easier, or even possible at all. Of great importance is that just about anyone – from hardcore Internet developers to academics to government staff to reporters to activists – has a place in it.

One of the first places we often start in talking about transparency is in the crafting of policies that require the release of data from government. While no one piece of this Cycle is “first” or more important than others, the legislative component is a useful starting point. (Mostly because it’s the first one we wrote down.)

Lawmakers, lobbyists and think tanks (as well as citizens) all play a role in articulating new transparency policies and pushing them through the twists and turns of government processes. Those policies must adhere to core principles of openness, such as making sure government data is “raw,” that it is complete, or that it is searchable (in total, there are nine of these openness principles that government data should adhere to).

These principles aren’t things that government is accustomed to just yet, so the advocacy process is pretty difficult, and the subsequent “gap” between writing new legislation and actually getting legislation passed is more like a “chasm.”

One of the beautiful aspects of open government, however, is that while laws are written (and should be passed) to require the release of government data, Congress, federal agencies, states and cities can – in most cases – become more open and transparent without new laws.

Sidenote: A great example of “enacting without law” is that no law has been passed requiring all federal legislation to be available online for 72 hours before it is debated by Congress. Yet in 2009, Congress showed again and again that it could post bills online for three days before debate without the law requiring that action. Similarly, the “Open Government Directive,” released in a memo by the White House, has made all kinds of new government data available without laws to require it. (Though, it would be ideal if Congress codified the Directive into law to give it a lasting impact.)

Once data is released, government agencies (such as the Department of Energy or Transportation) and web developers anywhere can build the necessary technology to organize the data and make it usable. Federal repositories like or Sunlight’s National Data Catalog are great examples of this type of public/private foundation building.

In the way of analogy, one way to think about this entire process is that it turns government into a type of public data wholesaler through which the public can build retail outlets.

With data being made easily accessible, journalists and bloggers can begin to dig into it, mix it up, identify relevant information and give the data context. As that critical context is provided, citizens absorb it and spread the information to others – both online and face-to-face – and make the data actionable.

Ultimately, informed citizen action creates greater public awareness; citizens become more effective, responsible advocates; holding government accountable becomes informed by data rather than inside-the-Beltway pundits, and better decisions can be made for our democracy.

As each element of the Cycle of Transparency moves forward concurrently, bringing about the changes we need to create a more transparent government, we also identify new needs.

At the end of the day, the process that the Cycle of Transparency describes is about creating a government more deserving of our trust, and ultimately, a government that allows its citizens to fully participate and hold government accountable as our Founders intended.

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  • Have you thought of adding some videos to your posts to keep the visitors more entertained? I just read through the entire article and it was quite good…thanks for the share

  • I think that the simple graphic is useful as a start to the conversation and that we can and should mature it as we go. Here are a few observatiions.

    The graphic has what seems to be the major People/Groups with some of their activities along the outside. The Venn-like diagram simplifies the reality of their overlap (Web Developers can be engaged citizens)and some of the activities are related to. But these can be handled in more detailed views if used in a briefing.

    I think that the inner Transprancy Cycle of is too simple needs some clarification.

    You have 2 things (Policy and Tech) that align very tightly with the outer circle and 2 Processes (Reporting and Engagement) that align with the outer groups (e.g. advocates).

    Good enough as a start, but Policy and Tech have processes too and it might be better to have these represented in the cycle.

    One other thought is that there is a data cycle underlying the Transparency and this is more complicated and could be shown to help one understand where transparency emerges from. Policy sets off activities and data relates to and captures some aspect of these activities. But we don’t see where data is created, how it is aggregated or how its quality is checked etc.

  • Jake Brewer

    Wow. We always know Sunlight blog readers are smart, but this leaves lots to respond to.

    To Larry’s most recent comment, thank you for your helpful feedback.

    Trying to break down a system as complex as this one in one image is a pretty significant challenge. We don’t expect it to work for everyone at first glance.

    Going with the analogy you use, some things really do require a lot of oars in the water, and if those oars are in sync, then you can move a big entity like a ship along quite efficiently. The problem is more often not the number of oars, but that the oars are rowing in too many different directions – and the rowers aren’t even aware that there are, in fact, other people rowing.

    The aim with the Cycle is to start to point out the many moving pieces that are necessary in our system of creating more transparency, and hope that it gets more oars working in the same direction – without crabbing someone else out of the boat :)

  • Pat B

    Voice of decent here. Actually I found the graphic quite clear, and well thought out. I detest the most of graphics being taught in schools, but this one makes use of the theory in a nice way.

    Also, lobbyists in and of themselves are not evil. There is nothing wrong with a group of like minded people getting together to have a strong voice at the table. The problem is the money that legislators require – yes require! – lobbyist bring with them. I am involved with a trade industry that has some lite lobbyist activity. It’s a great way to stop harmful legislation that is introduced, or being hashed out in conference. It’s much more effective than individuals staying on top of every piece of nonsense that is introduced, and then having small squeekly voices.

    But it angers me when our lobbyists try to talk to individual legislators about an issue and are asked directly when the campaign contribution from our group was last forwarded. Or after a discussion, one of their campaign workers calls the lobbyist and “invites” them to a fundraising event.

  • sharon

    A huge part of transparency is being able to more easily follow the money.

  • “The MN DFL caucus system is being exploited by a group that is funded in part by a foundation connected to the health care industry. Their aim is to play a numbers game and influence the endorsement process, by supporting less than progressive Democrats and shutting out those candidates that have a truly progressive record in the State. This needs to be investigated.”


    Do you have more information about this? I would be interested in learning about what you are discussing. I am a student in Minnesota, and have not heard anything about this.

  • Larry Klipp

    I believe in the K.I.S.S. principle, i.e. Keep it simple sir, senator, sister, or stupid (as the case may be). The graphic is colorful but only underscores the huge numbers of people with their oars in whatever water is floating an issue at any time.

    The graphic is confusing.

  • JonB

    Carl, I disagree that lobbyists should be left out. It’s through public interest lobbyists (like me) who can get better policy created. Lobbyist is simply a term for anyone who professionally advocates for legislation, be it white hat or black hat.

    And you need the white hats to keep the black hats at bay.

  • maureen Walsh

    The earmarks and waste in Government legislature is appaulling. Why is it that those earmarks and special arrangements are not shown in dollars and as a percentage of the cost of the bill? Also all of the nonsense money that is hidden in a bill, Like studying the effect of cocaine on monkeys??? why should that be in any bill? Instead of just reporting the cost of the bill how about the cost of the bill broken down into earmarks, special arrangements for certain congressmen, the expected cost of fraud/shrinkage. The saying goes “take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

  • Your cycle of transparency should leave out lobbyists. I know they exist but if we keep recognizing they exist they won’t go away. Government is of the people, by they people and for the people, at least thats the way it was meant. We do need think tanks however since we already know that politicians don’t often think of anything but popular policy that will get them reelected.

  • Lee Wright

    As a graphic that encompasses everything, perhaps, but it has little explanatory power and suffers from the problem indicated immediately above in the comments: Segregating contributions by individual or organization type.

    I’m not sure if “transparency,” in and of itself, creates a cycle of some kind, but it is part of a process.

    In this regard you could argue that “transparency” is or should be an integral part of addressing a number of problems with see in government at all levels.

    And at the end of the day, transparency–what some of us used to assume was simply “good government”–is a means to an end, not the end itself.

    Good luck with the upcoming campaign.

  • joe

    so *all* scholarly output and relevance is in the “Think Tank” part of your model?

  • Usha Abramovitz

    The MN DFL caucus system is being exploited by a group that is funded in part by a foundation connected to the health care industry. Their aim is to play a numbers game and influence the endorsement process, by supporting less than progressive Democrats and shutting out those candidates that have a truly progressive record in the State. This needs to be investigated.

    • Er, I think the progressives won this go-round (2012).