Magna Carta 2.0: a transparency research agenda

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Last week I attended the first Global Conference on Transparency Research at Rutgers University-Newark, which brought together two hundred transparency researchers from around the world. The six panel discussions and 94 papers generally fell into three categories: freedom of information laws, budget transparency, and e-government/technology innovation. Conference chair Suzanne Piotrowski and her advisory committee should be commended for putting together such a fantastic group of people.

From Sunlight’s perspective, it is incredibly useful to examine how countries at all stages of development tackle these three areas, particularly in terms of identifying the global state-of-the-art and figuring out how overseas models can apply here at home. Despite the learned speakers and insightful participants, what struck me most, however, was the paucity of research into the value of transparency, especially for more developed countries.

I am not referring to the democratic value of providing information to the public about the workings and behavior of government, however. Rather, I mean an evaluation of the financial and efficiency benefits that transparency brings to the operation of government and our society. This is the kind of question that is begging for quantitative analysis.

The internal government perspective

From a US process perspective, much of the information that is or should be made available to the public is already gathered in the everyday workings of government. Staff report to agency heads, who provide information to departmental leaders, who send information to the President, whose staff are subject to congressional oversight and reporting requirements.

So, what is the marginal cost of making these already existing datasets available online? What benefits arise therefrom? From these two simple questions come many more.

  • What are the benefits that arise when the public finds errors in government datasets?
  • Do staff improve agency data after these problems are revealed, and if so, does that improve the quality of agency decision-making?
  • How often will staff go online to access data that they had difficultly obtaining through internal means from other agencies – or even from other parts of their own agency?
  • What are the costs and benefits of how government officials and staff change their behavior as a result of knowing that the public is looking over their shoulder?

The private sector perspective

There are many direct benefits that accrue to the public arising from access to this information separate from government efficiency questions. For example, the vast majority of information requests are made by businesses, and are used for economic purposes. There are many unanswered questions here as well:

  • How much does public data contribute to the growth of businesses and the economy?
  • How does moving from a demand-based disclosure model (i.e. FOIA) to an automatic-disclosure model (i.e. what data.gov could become) reduce the difficulty that businesses, civil society, reporters, and members of the public have in obtaining data; and the costs agencies incur in responding to FOIA requests?
  • What new tools have non-profits and members of the public created that provide additional value to government-gathered information? By comparison, how much would it cost government to build those same tools?
  • How often will scandals be averted, or problems detected before they ripen, when we can collectively engage in oversight?

These questions are begging for investigation.

We must not reduce democracy to its dollar-value, but having this “return on investment” information available will help persuade those who must balance budget priorities. (It’s also useful to understand the limits of ROI analysis.) Congressional appropriators have recently cut a devastating amount funding for electronic government efforts – online transparency – and the 2012 fiscal year raises the specter that the federal government will abdicate its role as a transformative world leader in democratic governance.

Having a sense of the resources required for transparency — and the economic benefits it generates — may transform the transparency question from merely being the object of political lip-service and a funding pittance to one of how to cement it in its rightful place as a cornerstone of our democracy.

Right now is our magna carta moment, when the confluence of tightened governmental budgets and an awakening online populace could rebalance power in our society. This rebalancing, which reemphasizes that government exists by the consent of the governed, will occur only if we fight for our right to information, and arm ourselves with the facts and figures to bring around allies who are keeping their eyes on the financial bottom line.

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