Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency. Mostly in the context of how do governments view and implement transparency in what they do. Some people associate the concept of transparency as being part of a big data movement i.e. providing public access to the data governments collect or as just another paperwork requirement included in the Open Government Directive. But for me it is much bigger than this.
I think about transparency as something we should be thinking about in everything we do as governments. The way to make anything big attainable is by taking baby steps. This isn’t just a paperwork drill or a way to spend time and money re-formatting data to make it accessible by the public. This is really about culture change. It is about changing how we think about the work governments do and the processes we use to achieve the large variety of missions governments cover.
Being transparent about what we do and how we do business is not easy. This is true for all businesses, not just governments. This is a difficult mindset to embrace, but embrace it we must. It requires us to have people within our organization at all levels who are willing to accept this challenge and remind those around us why we need to move in this direction.
There will be times when we stumble and fall back to the comfort zone to the way we have done business in the past and yet with concerted effort there will also be gains and successes. This is a big challenge and like all good challenges worth fighting for, this one is far from easy. This quest of ours will take us on our longest and darkest journey into the very depths and soul of our organization. It will challenge us to think differently, ask us to be more creative, and to challenge the status quo. There will be people who will whisper about the advantages of the old ways and how those methods produced measurable results. This is a seductive mantra. Many weak people will fall for this mantra and try to use it to gain power and influence.
Yes, I know. This all sounds good, but I know you are more interested in how do you make transparency a reality in government. As I said before, it is about baby steps. Culture change or any kind of change to an organization doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time and hard work to achieve, but it is possible.
One of the ways I talk about transparency at my agency is in how we manage online communities. This means I need well trained Community Managers who understand the nuances of how government works and the cultural aspects of the community they are running. What I challenge my Community Managers to think about is how do they articulate to their respective communities what we as a agency and a government are doing for the local population. Sometimes this comes in the form of finding new and creative ways to discuss our policies and how we are working with that host country government on behalf of all citizens. But more often than not, it comes from listening to our communities, understanding what they want, responding to those needs, and most importantly showing them how we are responding to them. The “how” is the transparency part of things. The bottom line is we are building trust relationships and all relationships have to have an element of transparency in order to be successful.
Another way our Community Managers are asked to demonstrate transparency is by how we manage the community. By this I mean, how we enforce the rules of our communities in a transparent way. Our Community Managers are not allowed to just take down content or ban a community member with no explanation. They must cite violation of one of our rules of the community and must show they made an attempt to resolve the issue with the community member. Where possible, we try to let the community self correct, let the community member who violated one of the rules resolve the issue, or as a last resort we remove the content/ban the person. We ask the Community Managers to be transparent about what is going on with the situation as needed with respect to transparency. Obviously, there are some situations where it would be difficult to follow these rules, but where possible we ask our people to do so.
As consumers we are constantly asked for our opinions and ideas. Sometimes these come in the form of surveys, but more recently have been coming through contests and challenges. When we are inspired to provide information, ideas, or opinions, we take these things personally. After all, we are taking valuable time to respond. Humans generally want to be helpful to others and we are flattered that people want to know what we think. The problem is everyone wants to know what we think, but we never know what happens to our ideas or opinions. We don’t know if what we provided made any kind of difference.
This is where the idea of transparency can come into play. What if we told people what we do with their ideas and opinions? What if we told people how their ideas have generated new programs, better information sheets, or process flows? Better yet, what if we acknowledged and thanked people for their input? If we talk about how we implemented their ideas and suggestions, show them how their input has made a difference, and how we are using their feedback we are being more transparent about how we use the information we collect from the public. This is what I call the “Transparent Feedback Loop”. It’s not just about collecting ideas, but most importantly telling the community what happened after we collected the information and how what they gave us is changing how we do business.
This isn’t just an idea, it is something I am working on practicing every day in my agency. We have had some successes and from those have grown our largest and most successful communities in terms of level of engagement. We are not perfect, but continue to strive to make this a standard way of doing business and a part of our culture.
The threat people, especially governments, fear about transparency is the lack of control and power. What they fail to understand is that power now comes from sharing information and working in a collaborative way with your partners and your customers or citizens in this case. But this need for control and concentrated power is not an easy to ignore. Governments and large companies have always seen themselves as the leader of conversations and the entities who know what is best for people – what they want, how they want things, and how best to provide what they want to them.
In times of crisis, where fear is rampant, people tend to lean on their traditional Public Affairs/Public Relations staff for guidance and advice. It is where the first rule has always been “control the message”. I don’t blame my colleagues for this approach. After all, it is difficult to stand up day after day to the questions from the press, media, and general public about what we are doing and how. This approach is also time tested and has been shown to produce results. It is easy to understand where in a time of crisis you might rely on this approach, but what if instead of trying to “control the message” we actually talked about what is really going on? Granted not all situations are equal and governments cover a wide spectrum of crises. Everything from reputational crises to those of humanitarian, war, and natural disasters. But what if instead of just issuing the standard press releases, holding a press conference, and blasting social media channels, we actively seek to engage the public on the topic and hold an open discussion?
This would mean not classifying information that isn’t classified or marking something as sensitive when it isn’t. It also means proactively having Community Managers actively engage people on the topic at hand. It also means allowing ourselves to be questioned either by our communities, the Press, or the public through FOIA requests. If we are going to be a government and a group of people that people trust, then we have to be transparent about our motives.
The hope here is that by being more transparent about what we do with information and how we make it actionable then we will continue to build trust with the public and nurture the relationships we are building. Yes, this is a gamble, but we can’t hope to continue to do business as usual and get different results. We have to try new things, if we want to continue to grow and be relevant. If we don’t take risks and try new things, our fate is sealed. Ultimately, transparency and trust go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.
For some additional practical tips on how to make transparency part of your organization see my post titled Tips for Government Transparency.