Transparent Government: What It Means and How You Can Make It Happen

Transparent Government: What It Means and How You Can Make It Happen

by Donald Gordon

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Provides a blueprint for more effective government and greater citizen participation.

"Transparency" has become the new mantra of politicians and pundits alike. But what does it mean in practice? In this informative, clearly written book community activist Donald Gordon defines the essential features of a transparent government and makes a convincing case


Provides a blueprint for more effective government and greater citizen participation.

"Transparency" has become the new mantra of politicians and pundits alike. But what does it mean in practice? In this informative, clearly written book community activist Donald Gordon defines the essential features of a transparent government and makes a convincing case that it is critical for a healthy and maturing democracy and the basic liberties we all take for granted.

Gordon first presents a clear definition of transparency in government and why we should pursue it, followed by a review of the history of transparency in American politics. He then makes the case for how transparency serves as the foundation for active civic engagement. 

The heart of the book is Gordon's "Transparency Index." The author examines best practices in measuring transparency and then isolates the critical factors that can be used to assess any type of government and its commitment to transparency. In addition, a scoring system is presented that allows for comparison of government entities.

For anyone who wishes that government were more effective and responsive, this book shows how these goals can be achieved.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this call to arms, community activist Gordon (Piss ’Em All Off: And Other Practices of the Effective Citizen) explores how the institution of a transparent government can enhance civic engagement. He defines “transparency” as the dissemination of detailed information about governmental data in a manner that is “accessible, comprehensible, and enticing.” Analyzing recent efforts to promote transparency in several American cities through the use of social media, Gordon concludes that the best programs allow citizens to interact with government officials to shape policies. In his fervent belief in transparency, however, Gordon overestimates its potential benefits, claiming that it is “changing the political landscape.” He also makes proposals that are not entirely feasible: not only should government information be widely accessible, he suggests, but governments should also provide citizens with abstracts of each article submitted, as well as information about “mechanisms and processes.” Furthermore, Gordon doesn’t discuss transparency in relation to lobbyists or campaigning. Gordon’s in-depth discussion of governmental transparency is perhaps more suitable for government insiders than lay readers. Agent: Nancy Rosenfeld, AAA Books Unlimited. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“This is a critical book that anyone who cares if government works well needs to read. It gets to the heart of how democracy should function and provides a blueprint on how to get there.”
—James N. Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University
 “Too few political scientists try to come up with ways of improving our government. Donald Gordon is an exception. Not only does he diagnose the problem of transparency, but he also provides practical and feasible solutions that citizens and politicians can (and should) actually implement.”
—Andrew Roberts, associate professor of political science, Northwestern University, author of The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Donald Gordon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-919-2


What Transparency Is and Why It Matters

"The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."

—Patrick Henry, June 9, 1788, Virginia Constitutional Convention

What is this thing we call transparency in government? And why has the word transparency become so ubiquitous that it has replaced the word reform as the new mantra of any politician who wants to get elected or stay in office? In fact, the word transparency has been used so often that it has become virtually meaningless.

How are we to know when the actions of our elected representatives or civil servants contribute to more transparency in government or are simply so much political spin? Does it really matter if we know the difference? Is more transparency in government a good thing and something we should strive for, or can it be a detriment to good governance?

These are important questions that must be answered if we're to survive as a democracy, and, as one of America's founders, Patrick Henry, so aptly put it, if we're to retain our liberties as a free people. Yes, it's that important!


Let's be clear, right from the beginning, that you and I—and every American citizen—have a right to full transparency regarding any facet of our government. It's not a question of what but when. Almost all information about our government should be made accessible as it becomes available—we have the tools to do that. What remains, information that would be classified as sensitive, should be made accessible when it becomes prudent to do so within a reasonable period of time.

There is no information about our government that should be sequestered for an indeterminate period of time or withheld simply to appease the desires of those in government. This isn't just a personal opinion, which you will see as this book unfolds. It is the opinion of many great thinkers who have preceded us throughout our history, so you and I stand on very firm ground—or should I say shoulders? Yet after more than two hundred years, transparency in government continues to elude us. If we are to propose and defend the notion of full transparency in government, we first must come up with an acceptable definition of transparency in government. We all have to be using the same language, so to speak, when talking about transparency. Ask citizens if they are for transparency in government, and they will say yes. Then ask them what it means, and you will get a different, if nuanced, answer every time.

More important, without a definition that can be commonly agreed upon, many in government will spin their own ideas of what transparency means. Experience has shown that their definition will often pale in comparison to the more rigorous interpretation we are about to produce—sometimes so they can avoid the work of providing true transparency, sometimes so they can avoid the awkward and embarrassing exposure that comes with opening government to public scrutiny.

If It Looks Like a Duck ...

If we're to discuss transparency, we must objectively come up with a comprehensive definition that will be immediately recognizable and widely accepted. You know, like distinguishing a duck from, say, a kangaroo. We need the quack, the waddle, and the webbed feet, or we don't have a duck. We need obvious characteristics and discernible boundaries.

So let's start where most definitions start: with a dictionary. I used the Oxford online dictionary, and as you might suspect, its primary definition of transparency is "the condition of being transparent." Well that's not very helpful! Let's move on, then, to its definition of transparent. Several definitions are given, but the meaning that's relevant for us is:

Easy to perceive or detect:

• having thoughts or feelings that are easily perceived; open: you'd be no good at poker—you're too transparent

• (of an organization or its activities) open to public scrutiny: if you had transparent government procurement, corruption would go away

In particular, note the references to "easily perceived" and "open to public scrutiny." To easily perceive something you need a clear understanding of what it is you're looking at. In other words, it must be comprehensible. When we open government to public scrutiny, the implication is that whatever you're looking at is easily accessible. Keep both of these concepts in mind—comprehensibility and accessibility. We'll need them later.

By the way, the word transparency comes from Medieval Latin (Latin as written and spoken ca.700–ca.1500) meaning "to shine a light through." It was first used in the sense of "easily seen through" in the 1590s. Now, when was the last time you envisioned government of any kind being "easily seen through"? When was the last time you imagined that you, the average citizen, could "shine a light through" the morass of policies and laws that we've come to know as government?

Consider some synonyms for transparent: clear, plain, lucid. Be honest. Are those words that come to mind when you think of government? Now consider some antonyms for transparent: cloudy, dark, opaque. Now we're getting somewhere!

So far we have explored definitions for transparent, and a few synonyms and antonyms to boot. Let's build on all that and apply it toward a practical, empirical definition of transparency in government, one that we can use every day and that we can hold our elected officials and government employees to.

Pick a Card, Any Card

Any magician worth his or her salt is good at the arts of deception and diversion, and a politician is like a magician in a business suit. Often what is sold as transparency is simply the deceptive or diversionary tactic of making disclosure appear to be transparency. But wait—aren't they the same, disclosure and transparency? On the contrary, they are quite distinctive. So, back to the dictionary, which defines disclosure as:

1. The action of making new or secret information known

2. A fact, especially a secret, that is made known3

What's important to point out here is that disclosure, by definition, is simply making information known—be it new, secret, interesting, boring, extensive, trite, whatever. It is the simple act of disclosing. Note that there is no requirement that the information be comprehensible or easily accessible. So remember those two words—comprehensible and accessible. Disclosure could mean making information public that requires a citizen to file a Freedom of Information request (no easy task), appear at a designated location to view the information (not always possible), and do all of this within a very strict time frame (highly unlikely)—with no guarantee the person would understand what he was looking at.

Prior to the advent of the Internet, very little data was digitized, and for the most part the process laid out in the previous paragraph is how you typically got your information, if you could get to it at all. Given the existence of the Internet, you would think it would be easier. On the contrary, information can be even more confusing and even more difficult to obtain. We'll talk about that a little later. What's important to understand now is that the conditions to satisfy full disclosure pale in comparison to those for full transparency, which is why we're sold so much disclosure as if it were transparency. Many in government are happy to provide disclosure so long as they don't have to provide transparency.

So no, disclosure is not transparency, but it is a starting point. You need information to be disclosed in order to achieve full transparency. Disclosure is the foundation upon which transparency is built. You wouldn't live in the foundation of a house, would you? Of course not! You'd expect a structure to be built on that foundation. Think of it this way: Transparency is to disclosure as a house is to a foundation.

Now we could start from scratch to craft our common and comprehensive definition of transparency. But why should we? So many good organizations out there have been working at achieving transparency in government for years and have at least attempted to define transparency within certain constructs. I've looked around at a number of these organizations, and one in particular stood out: Transparency International. The name just about says it all, and it's been around for a while. For over twenty years, this nongovernmental organization has tracked political corruption worldwide, and it has a pretty good track record for understanding the need for political transparency. It currently defines transparency as follows: "Transparency is about shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. It is knowing why, how, what, and how much. Transparency ensures that public officials, civil servants, managers, board members and businessmen act visibly and understandably, and report on their activities. And it means that the general public can hold them to account." However, at one time it defined transparency as "a principle that allows those affected by administrative decisions, business transitions or charitable work to know not only the basic facts and figures but also the mechanisms and processes. It is the duty of civil servants, managers and trustees to act visibly, predictably and understandably in such a way as to enable this transparency." It is this older, but no longer expressed version that I prefer as a basis for creating our definition specific to transparency in government.

The key takeaway here is presenting to those affected "the basic facts and figures" as well as "the mechanisms and processes" behind those facts. You can't begin to have real transparency if any of these elements of disclosure are missing. However, what often passes for transparency, what government officials would like you to think is transparency, is merely a bunch of facts and figures—and sometimes not very good facts and figures. And seldom do we get the mechanisms and processes that drive those facts and figures or show us how they were arrived at: the meeting minutes, the decision trees, the e-mails, the phone calls, the memos, and so on. And here's the real kicker: when all is said and done, even if we get the facts, figures, mechanisms, and processes, what we have been given is still only disclosure.

In its definition, Transparency International also presents us with two other important points as we gravitate toward a common and comprehensive definition of transparency. The first is to characterize the audience for transparency in government: "those affected by administrative decisions, business transitions or charitable work." Transparency International does not concentrate only on government but targets a broader range of entities. Because our focus is strictly on government, we are concerned with "those affected by administrative decisions" and legislation.

The second point that Transparency International makes is to characterize who is responsible for transparency and to define their tasks: "civil servants, managers and trustees to act visibly, predictably and understandably in such a way as to enable this transparency." Again, in limiting the scope to government, we would characterize those responsible and their tasks as "civil servants and elected officials to act visibly, predictably and understandably in such a way as to enable this transparency."

In the end, however, the best one can say is that Transparency International gives us a good definition of disclosure, but as we have seen, disclosure isn't transparency. So all we have is a good definition of disclosure and an abbreviated, dictionary definition of transparency. It's time we bring this discussion, and our building of a definition of transparency, to a conclusion. We're ready to put up that house of transparency on our foundation of disclosure.

Ace in the "Whole"

Earlier we distilled two key concepts from the dictionary definition of transparency: comprehensibility and accessibility. Now we're going to use them. Those facts, figures, mechanisms, and processes (disclosure) have to be presented in a way that is accessible and comprehensible. In other words, those who are affected by governmental decisions—in particular, citizens—must be able to get to the information easily (accessibility) and understand what they're looking at (comprehensibility). That might seem obvious to you and me, but it seems to be rocket science to those in government charged with the responsibility to provide transparency.

Accessibility should be effortless given the Internet. Every piece of knowledge seems to make it there, and most of it is free. And getting to information is as easy as opening a laptop, a tablet, or a smart phone and doing a search in any number of easy-to-use browser tools. It's getting to the point that if information isn't digitized, it doesn't exist! When was the last time you went to a library, and how often have you done that recently? And when was the last time you went on the Internet, and how often have you done that recently?

Yet in the dark and cloistered world of government, that message seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Sure, records are being digitized, but for the most part you and I can't get to them. Why is that? After all, it's our information. Yet we have to present a note—a Freedom of Information request—in many situations to get to it. And then we have to make a case for why we want the information. Here's a thought: let's turn Freedom of Information Acts on their Luddite heads and require government agencies to provide a reason why they don't make information available. It does us no good if information, disclosed by various government departments, is available only to intellectuals and scholars who know what to ask for and how to get it. Disclosure without accessibility, or even limited accessibility, is a nonstarter. It's a foundation buried in the rubble of obscurity, with no hope of our being able to construct that house of transparency.

But let's assume that our governmental agency has figured it out, overcome the barriers to access, and in the spirit of best practices made all its information easily accessible. Now what? It's one thing to put a 150-page city budget on the Internet, a mere click away from accessibility, in a portable document format (pdf) that makes it easy to read or print out. It's another thing entirely to present that information in a way that is comprehensible. Sure there are accountants and experts in public policy who could analyze such a document expeditiously, but all the rest of us would muddle through a few pages and give up. Just making information accessible doesn't make it useful. Information has to be presented in a way that the average citizen can digest.

There's one more criterion that we haven't mentioned yet, and it is critical to achieving full transparency from disclosure. The information must be presented in such a way that citizens actually want to examine it. In other words, it must be enticing. In drawing on our analogy, we laid the foundation and built the house using the best materials and going beyond any of the building codes for safety and functionality. But the house is ugly. The contractors did their job, but the architect had no sense of allure or symmetry. So there it stands, but no one wants to live in it! So, too, it is with information. It has to be presented in a way that's interesting, intriguing, and relevant. In other words, it must pass the enticement test: people must want to buy it, or in our case of transparency, buy into it.

What good is it to make information accessible and comprehensible if no one cares to examine it and find it beneficial? The information must motivate individuals to engage in dialogue directed toward improving the efficiencies of their government and mitigating corruption. This is why enticement is so critical to achieving full disclosure from transparency. It is the raison d'être of transparency. It is why we go through the trouble of bringing about transparency out of the morass of disclosure in the first place. Think of it this way: we must ACE disclosure (make it Accessible, Comprehensible, and Enticing) in order to get transparency. So now we have a common and comprehensive definition of transparency:

The principle by which those affected by administrative decisions and legislation are made aware of the basic facts and figures as well as the mechanisms and processes of their government. This information must be presented in a way that is accessible, comprehensible, and enticing, thus motivating citizens to engage in the dialogue necessary to improve the efficiencies of government and mitigate corruption. It is the duty of our elected representatives and of civil servants to act in such ways as to enable this transparency.


Excerpted from TRANSPARENT GOVERNMENT by DONALD GORDON. Copyright © 2014 Donald Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donald Gordon teaches political history, civic engagement, and political reform at Northwestern University. Gordon, a community activist for over thirty years in the Chicago area, is planning his second run for alderman. He is the author of Piss ’Em All Off: And Other Practices of the Effective Citizen, which discusses civic engagement based on his years as an activist.

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