Transparency Ex Post and Ex Ante

24 08 2011

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Since taking office just about a hundred days ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pleased open government and transparency activists by creating a myriad of tools and data portals to open government information. All city employee salaries have been made easily accessible by the public, as well as 311 service requests, building permits, lobbyist data, and more.

At the risk of acquiring a John Kass-style cheap hater reputation, I had a good amount of fun making light of these actually impressive initiatives on Twitter, where I may or may not have referred to them as “democracy by spreadsheet.” Recently, WBEZ ran a report looking at whether the Mayor’s transparency initiatives were more appearance than reality.

New Chicago Chief Technology Officer John Tolva was a rightfully lauded pick for that office, and he has been feted for putting open government initiatives into “overdrive.”

My point was not that these efforts to make city data open are not important and useful–they certainly are–but rather that they are not in and of themselves what government transparency is about. In a complex world, it is possible to both praise a government policy and point out that it isn’t nearly sufficient.

What we’ve seen from the Emanuel administration has been ex post transparency–actions that represent what government accountability and transparency should result in. But they are not in and of themselves enough. Government transparency should be a function of accountability–public participation in government, not the fruits of a closed-door process of decision making.

In practice, what this means is that the institutions in City Hall that make data and information available should be accountable, open and publicly available. As it works right now, it appears that the decisions regarding which data should be made available, when, and in which format, are made by the Administration unilaterally. There is no ordinance debated and passed by our legislators identifying data sets for disclosure and mandating that disclosure.

In a similar vein, there is no body representing the public and various public bodies–similar to for example the Joint Review Boards that in theory monitor creation of tax increment financing–that can contribute to the decision making that surrounds transparency initiatives. Such institutions would add the element of accountability to transparency by including public voices in data release decision making.

Instead, the process is directed by the Mayor’s office, and whatever input there is–and presumably, software developers are being heavily involved–is not particularly open.

From the TechPresident blog on Personal Democracy Forum,

With city Chief Data Officer Brett Goldstein, Tolva said, he’s in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. For him, that’s a crucial point — and he says it’s part of a nationwide wisening-up on the part of city executives.

Just as Nigel Jacob at the Office of New Urban Mechanics sits in the mayor’s office, just as Rachel Sterne sits in the mayor’s office in New York, I think what you’re seeing in the last 18 months is an understanding of city executives that technology and the kind of innovations that it can foment deserve a seat at the table, deserves a seat at his or her table, and yet having a tight connection to the more operational aspects of city IT.

The “wisening up” of executives is unquestionably welcome, but it is not what accountability and transparency are about. When all the discretion lives on the Fifth Floor, a critical component of transparency and accountability is free from public pressure and shielded from public view. It goes without saying that these are not features of accountability and transparency. Mayor Emanuel has not bound himself or the office of the Mayor to any policy. He is simply exhibiting what beneficence it is comfortable for him to exhibit.

The ex ante–what happens before the fact–is what I’m interested in. The Fifth Floor’s interest in opening government processes to public scrutiny and input is truly served precisely at the point of decision making, not after decisions have already been made. That is the kind of fundamental reform that cannot be undone by a unilateral decision at the top levels of government.

The current trend–which is a nicer word than ideology–in governance is to empower technocrats as a path to efficiency. The idea is that the experts know best in a complex policy world, so defer to them. It is a positive step forward for governments to bring in experts rather than, say, politicians’ cousins, but those experts are rarely inherently aware of what the public wants or needs beyond the abstract. And in any case, their work should be guided and vetted by public bodies.

When we have real, binding, and often uncomfortable ex ante accountability, we’ll end up with more meaningful ex post transparency. Until then, it may just be democracy by spreadsheet.


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