In a world where communications spans the globe at lightning speed, we in government are in a pitched battle to keep our citizens informed. Citizens demand accountability from government while demanding access to the vast amount of data stored in government. Providing access to data is an age old problem that has accelerated due to the wide open world of digital media. Transparency in government is a necessary and worthwhile undertaking.
I am reminded of the iconic motion picture, The Ten Commandments. This film depicts the life of the biblical figure Moses and his efforts to free the enslaved Hebrew people in Egypt. The ruler of Egypt, Ramses, was hardhearted and would not release the Hebrew slaves from bondage. Moses would repeatedly shout, “Let my people go!” Recently this statement ran through my head and woke me from a dead sleep. There was a difference, though, in how I interpreted the statement. My interpretation is different and sounded like, “Let my people know!” What was my mind trying to tell me? Let our people know what is transpiring in government. Let our people know how we function. Let our people know that we will be held accountable for our actions. Okay, I am aware that comparing transparency to a biblical event is a stretch but I will give it a shot. Also, to imply that making government transparent is easy would be very misleading.
Transparency is anything but easy knowing the numerous communications issues government has to deal with. Government’s first issue with transparency is our heavy reliance on legacy technologies. The older the technology the more difficult it is to extract data from those systems. Legacy technologies, such as mainframes, must be modernized in order to unlock data more effectively. The second issue government has with transparency is the impact of different generational needs of the citizens. These generational differences impact the numerous communication channels that exist today. There are citizens that still write handwritten letters, those that send emails and the new generation will just “think” of an issue for government to respond too. Governments must satisfy all channels of communications in order to reach all of the citizens. The last issue governments have with transparency is the proverbial elephant in the room — funding. Making data available to the citizens is not free. Someone has to fund the technology that extracts, collates and delivers the data. Government funding, for operations, is still at some of the lowest levels in recent years. If only a few of the citizens want to access the volumes of data, how much will government invest in making it available? Balancing the funding issues with the needs of the citizens will always be a part of delivering information into the future.
I would be remiss if I did not address an issue that has a significant impact on transparency, the State of Michigan Freedom of Information Act or FOIA. This act provides a formal mechanism for citizens to access government information. In many cases, governments will work with anyone asking for information as simply as possible but there are times when a formal request is the most effective way to go. However one seeks to gain data from government, there are rules of engagement to get the job done. Building a trusted relationship between government and the citizenry is the main reason why transparency is so important. Working together will help solidify the trusted relationships longer term.
Moses exclaimed, “Let my people go!” to the rulers of Egypt and the Hebrew slaves were soon released from bondage. We in government exclaim, “Let my people know!” to the citizens and the gates of data open. So, in a biblical/governmental manner, everyone wins!
Author: Phil Bertolini – Deputy County Executive & Chief Information Office for Oakland County, Michigan