Monday, 8 November 2010

Transparency: Some hopes and fears, new words and ideas

I write as a tax payer and a citizen who wants a world which is more ambitious, creative and fair. I also write as someone who has been working in and around public service organisations for the last 30 years as a civil servant, an adviser, a challenger, a listener and facilitator. I would like to talk about my hopes for what transparency should lead towards. I also have a couple of fears too.

It is my earnest hope that these new transparency arrangements will mean that citizens and taxpayers become more confident that their money is being spent wisely on the projects and services that make a difference. In other words that there will be a greater sense of ownership and accountability about what councils, central government departments etc. do and achieve. To coin a phrase, that we will have ‘transpocracy’ – where transparency is adding to (and not subtracting from) democracy. 

I also hope that we get ‘transporency’ too, such that the information that is published under the transparency guidelines seeds ideas, actions and initiatives by all concerned (politicians, providers, service users and media observers) that helps all to build the Big Society that our government is committed to developing. I believe we already have a big (hearted) society where everyday millions of people do something for a friend, neighbour or family member. But we can have an even bigger society if transparency helps a thousand flowers bloom.

I am concerned though that all this transparency could feed a growing number of cynical armchair voyeurs. To coin another word – I fear we may be at risk of creating ‘transpruriency’ where a legion of self proclaimed ‘auditors’ and ‘researchers’ are only interested in the costs of public services and not in their value.

In my more cynical moments, I also fear that the sheer volume of the data which is being published and the ways it is being uploaded onto the internet will bamboozle & overload far more than it will enlighten and inform. In other words (and this is my final ‘new’ word) that we will get a great deal of ‘transapparency’ where a semblance of transparency is created but which is actually nothing of the kind. There will be a lot of ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’.

So, how can we ensure that we get plenty of transpocracy and transporency, whilst ensuring that we keep transpruriency and transapparency in check? For me there is a simple one word answer to this question: strategy.

In this context, I speak as an organisation development and change facilitator who has seen lots of public services lurch into policy implementation without considering what they want to achieve other than baseline compliance. So my challenge is this – what do you want to achieve with transparency and how will you evaluate whether you are getting closer to (or further from) your goals?

Transparency could achieve so much. I hope it will help reconnect people with their public services and make those services more accountable. It can and should help boost value for money and spread wise spending practices from one public agency to another. It must not become bureaucratic, opaque or inaccessible.

In my view, how each council (or other public agency) develops their transparency strategy will help it to be successful or not. If the strategy is developed by just a few accountants and IT people sitting in a darkened room, I think it won’t work very well.

It is not that I have anything against accountants and IT people, I hasten to add. It is simply that if transparency is for the public then I think the public need to be involved in shaping the strategy and designing how transparency is rolled out for them. I know that some councils have done this – but have they all? (I note that the website guidance: Local Spending Data Guidance does cover items such as ‘file formats’ and ‘data content’ well but makes no mention of involving the public...)

How are you developing your transparency strategy?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9/11/10 23:00

    Great post Jon.

    As a progressive thinker and total advocate of open data I should be enthused by the Government's proposals her but sadly I'm not.

    The whole 'armchair auditor' issue leaves me cold I have to say. I really think that this will appeal to those few in our society who, for somewhat questionable reasons, enjoy sabre rattling, writing to the local rag, submitting FOI requests and questions to full Council etc.

    That's all well and good but the vast majority simply don't want to be involved in scrutinising expenditure and rightly expect public sector organisations to have adequate scrutiny and audit arrangements in place. To suggest that publishing data on expenditure will have a significant effect on spend is a total nonsense IMHO.

    I have, however, seen some interesting developments with open data where it can be taken and used for public good. San Francisco seem to have led the way here ( see ) but we're catching up. I do think this is where we need to focus.

    SO I would conclude by saying transparency for genuine public good is great but as you suggest in your final paragraphs, publishing raw data for the sake of it is not likely to have any positive effect.

    Just one man's views (and not necessarily those of his employer).