Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

What Makes a Government Program "Transparent"?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Click or tap image to download a .pdf of this article.What is “transparency”?

Given all the attention being given these days to “big data” I’ve been thinking about this question while researching my framework for transparency program planning and assessment.

While it’s important to make data available for aggregation and innovative analysis, someone has to first pay for generating the data and making it useable. 

That “someone” is often (but not always) a government program.

My perspective is based partly on having managed projects connected with databases, electronic publishing, and data conversion issues. Structuring datasets to improve analytical or presentation features costs money, no matter how automated we make the process. Maintaining and providing access services adds another layer of recurring costs.

With that in mind, the following are criteria to consider when designing, modifying, or assessing a government program’s “transparency.” An underlying assumption here is that money spent on individual government programs usually has targeted benefits aimed at identified constituents. The needs of these constituents in terms of transparency should be taken into account, even when data generated by the program has potential value over and above what was originally planned.

Transparency criteria

  1. Descriptive Information about the program is available
    • What this means: Information about the program and its services is available to the people the program is intended to serve. This includes information about changes in the program, how they may impact how the program performs, and how the program’s services are managed. 
    • Why this is important: People need to understand what the program is supposed to do for them before they make an effort to use it.
  2. Management is identified
    • What this means: Names, qualifications, responsibilities, and contact information of those responsible for managing the program and its services are available to those the program is intended to serve. 
    • Why this is important: Constituents need to trust the individuals responsible for providing the service. They also need to know whom to contact with questions.
  3. Operational costs are known
    • What this means: The actual cost of resources needed to operate the program are known and available to management, oversight groups, and constituents. 
    • Why this is important: Fiscal stringency is bound to get worse before it gets better, and you can’t make a cost benefit analysis without knowing the benefits — and the costs. 
  4. Management is collaborative
    • What this means: The different groups or departments involved in managing the program cooperate and share information about the program. 
    • Why this is important: Duplication of effort (“reinventing the wheel”) must be discouraged.
  5. Performance statistics are gathered
    • What this means: Objective data (i.e., “hard numbers”) about program performance (e.g., dollars distributed, number of transactions, constituent contact hours, etc.) are generated, updated frequently, managed to, and published. 
    • Why this is important: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
  6. Quality measures are tracked and acted upon
    • What this means: Performance quality data (e.g., error rates, user satisfaction, eligibility reclassifications, etc.) are collected, published on a regular basis, and used as part of an ongoing quality improvement process. 
    • Why this is important: Poor quality costs both time and money.
  7. Multiple channels are coordinated
    • What this means: Multiple communication media are employed to reach specific target groups (e.g., print and online, television and web, social networks, email, call centers, etc.) Content provided by different channels is coordinated so that responses to inquiries are consistent across media, e.g., contact centers and social media conversations provide the same answers to the same inquiries.  
    • Why this is important: Social media simplify constituent sharing of both positive and negative experiences with government programs. Inconsistent responses inevitably lead to dissatisfaction and increased service costs to “repair the damage.”
  8. Program data are accessible for re-use
    • What this means: Program data are not only generated but are also made available in a format that facilitates additional analysis, aggregation, and re-use. 
    • Why this is important: Just as individual departments need to be able to efficiently share data among themselves in order to manage an agency’s programs effectively, the program needs to be able to share data with other agencies and institutions that can creatively impact a variety of communities.

Additional thoughts

Imagine data flowing to a single database from multiple government programs, programs that have many different types of objectives but which potentially have overlaps in individuals, groups, or companies but from different perspectives. Won’t analysis of such data reveal ways to serve these individuals better?

Maybe, but we can’t really be sure. In fact, analyzing the data overall might in fact help identify not only new or original ways to improve government services but might in fact reveal possible savings overall, too.

One problem is, in order to be in a position to take advantage of such a “big data” analysis, we have to incur some of the costs for data prep on spec. We can’t be sure what we might find till we find it. This is a classic problem in the valuation of information services from the perspective of having to decide whether to buy the information or not. In order to know whether the information is worth buying, you need to access the information. But once you access the information, you have the information, so why pay for it?

Print and electronic publishers deal with these types of problems every day and have developed a variety of pricing, distribution, and marketing approaches to address the problem. Sometimes the solution involves a subscription payment scheme where the buyer pays in advance for a stream of information based on certain expected benefits.

One feature of this model is that it tends to favor established authors and publishers that already have a track record. We can’t all be Stephen King, obviously, where historic events help shape customer expectations — and a willingness to pay.

Spending money on standardizing or documenting government program data in the hope that some type of “big data” analysis will generate benefits  is a potentially risky investment. You might say that it is the role of government to engage in such risk given the potential benefits that might follow. That is a policy discussion which cannot be entirely decided by “facts” since it fundamentally involves resolving questions about the role of government. 

My take is, as I continue to research this concept of transparency, that (a) the government should be positioning itself to perform “big data” analysis given the inherent limitations of individual programs, but (b) the benefits of transparency to individual programs must first be understood given cost realities and coming deficit-related budget restrictions.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in collaborative project management and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at ddmcd@yahoo.comor by phone at 703-402-7382.

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