Learning why transparency matters: a new Sunlight Foundation research project

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We at the Sunlight Foundation have a mission statement:

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike. We are committed to improving access to government information by making it available online, indeed redefining “public” information as meaning “online,” and by creating new tools and websites to enable individuals and communities to better access that information and put it to use…

Implicit in this statement, and in pretty much all of what we do at Sunlight, is an understanding that openness and transparency, enabled by technology, lead to more democratic accountability, and that, on balance, this leads to better governance. It’s an understanding that we share with a growing global community.

We have so far been fortunate that most people intuitively grasp the value of technology-driven openness and transparency, and as a result, an impressive range of NGOs and governments around the world are building on the basic understanding that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” (Justice Brandeis’ aphorism that gave the Sunlight Foundation its name). For example, as of this writing, 58 countries have signed onto the Open Government Partnership.

But the quick-to-grasp nature of transparency’s potential has its dangers: 1) that we cease asking questions about it because it has become an article of faith; and 2) that, as strong advocates for the cause, we begin to oversell its potential (and thus undermine its genuine contributions).

This year, we are kicking off an attempt to both clarify and test our understandings of what transparency can do. Thanks to support from Google.org, we at Sunlight are embarking on a research project to evaluate the impacts of technology-driven transparency policies around the world. We plan to conduct a series of case studies.

In so doing, we need to be careful. The world is changing rapidly as more individuals have access to information through digital technology, and as more institutions (both governmental and non-governmental) are making more data available. Whole ecosystems are springing up around open government data, but they are largely in their infancy. Expectations and norms are in a state of flux.

It is easy and tempting to grab attention with bold promises about the astonishingly low costs of large-scale collaboration and information-sharing that technology is making possible for the first time in human civilization. The INTERNET-REWRITES-THE-RULES-OF-HUMAN-CIVILIZATION camp is full of hope for the transformative problem-solving that open-everything enables. We like the big thinking and big dreaming.

But we also recognize the importance of realism. Pie-in-the-sky claims make easy straw men for doubters and skeptics, and undercut the arguments for real change. Promising too much too soon is a recipe for disappointment, which leads to cynicism, which weakens support for reform.

It’s neither responsible nor reasonable to expect that openness and transparency will erase politics and power struggles over limited resources, or completely overcome the problems of collective action and political apathy.

The question is not, “How do technology and openness completely revolutionize politics?” but rather “How can we harness modern technology, in particular the information, data-sharing, and collaboration it enables, to make realistic improvements in how government solves problems and serves its citizens?”

As we begin this research, we offer five starting hypotheses:

  1. Transparency and open data make it easier for journalists and watchdogs to evaluate government actions. This raises the costs to politicians of bad behavior, improving government’s performance and accountability.
  2. Transparency and open data empower citizens to make more informed civic participation and voting choices, especially when journalists and other third parties are able to make the data more accessible and understandable and contextualize is for citizens. This allows citizens to more effectively hold lawmakers accountable.
  3. Transparency and open data help create the conditions for a vibrant community of third-party developers, analysts, and advocates who innovate ways to solve problems ranging from catching the bus to catching fraud. As this community develops around available data, it demands more from government, and as government makes more available, the community widens in turn – a virtuous circle of engagement.
  4. Government policymaking and policy implementation both benefit from transparency and openness because non-government actors have valuable latent knowledge (from potholes on their street to prior art in patenting, to borrow two common examples) that can make government decision-makers better informed. The easier it is for interested and informed citizens to contribute that latent knowledge through open processes, the more diverse resources government decision-makers will be able to consult. Government data about previous problems and previous policy interventions also creates more informed, and thus more effective, advocates, analysts, and other policy researchers and innovators.
  5. All of these processes can add up to a more engaged and active citizenry. While trust and legitimacy are difficult concepts to measure, we have a generalized expectation that the more citizens can participate in and monitor processes of government, the more connection they will have to what government does. Rather than treating government as something distant and strange, they will view government as accessible and familiar, which can lead to increased trust.

We also want to note that making transparency policy work isn’t a just-add-water process. In that spirit, we offer some other guiding questions on our minds as we begin this research:

  • Are there certain conditions necessary for transparency policies to be effective? (e.g., a vibrant civil society, a free press, a meaningful commitment from government officials, particular development conditions?)
  • Which policies are the most effective under different sets of conditions/ constraints?
  • And what do we mean by effective? And how would we know it?
  • And how long should it take to observe the hoped-for impacts?

These are our initial assumptions and questions. We offer them in the spirit of opening a dialogue. We are far from set in these ideas. We offer them now, in their first-cut state, because we are aiming for a research process that mirrors the best of what open processes have to offer – a chance to draw on the latent knowledge of a larger community beyond ourselves, and a chance to be held accountable to the highest standards of honest research inquiry. We view this fundamentally as a collective enterprise.

Are there other questions we should be asking? Other hypotheses we should be testing? How should we be thinking through these questions? Are we even asking the right questions?

And as we move forward, which cases should we be investigating in detail? If you have a case study you would like to suggest, please e-mail our research fellow coordinating case study selection, Alexander Furnas (or leave a comment at the end of this post). We are looking for examples of national, state, and local transparency experiments, both successes and failures.

We view this as a community-driven research enterprise. We certainly don’t have all the answers, or even all the questions. All we have are a set of working ideas that can only be as good as the ideas that you share with us. Probably the most fundamental of these working ideas is that we are all better off as part of an open and transparent process that brings in the best thinking of a broader community. We hope that each one of you will confirm this hypothesis by being in touch, either by commenting here, or sharing your thoughts by e-mail.