Local Government Transparency as Value Criterion

Stick the word “transparency” into a news database. Limit the search to the past week. You’ll pull hundreds of links: letters to the editor on a local government body’s lack of transparency. Congressional hearings on transparency in the federal judiciary. Pushes for transparency in health care charges. The applicability of police transparency laws to various police records. Transparency in all levels of decisionmaking that affect the public. 

We hear the word “transparency” all the time. It’s a “god” term in nearly every aspirational statement of nearly every political ideology. We don’t spend a lot of time contemplating those times when transparency might not be the highest value (protecting the privacy of vulnerable people, allowing public officials a little deliberative space rather than reminding them they’re always essentially on television, and so on) because we’ve seen too many instances where secrecy has been abused. Transparency not only has the denotative meaning of openness, but the connotative meaning of: essential for democracy. 

Although American legal scholars have long characterized states as laboratories for democracy, a growing consensus is building around municipalities as better serving that space. Municipalities have a disadvantage, resource scarcity, that actually interacts with the advantage of direct contact with constituentseveryone gets to complain and argue about that scarcity together. 

What is transparency? According to one extremely in-depth treatment of the topic, “[t]ransparency is understood as the opening up of information on actions and laws to the public, providing citizens with the tools to improve understanding, vigilance, and communication. Coupled with action from the public and media, this should lead to accountability where public officials take responsibility for their actions (or inaction).”

We hear a lot about how technology aids secrecyand it certainly does. But technology also supercharges the potential of governments ethically committed to transparency. As Catherine Yochum points out, technology has made direct participation easier than it’s ever been in history. It allows citizens to participate from their homes, it facilitates the establishment of what Yochum refers to as “community dashboards.” Cities looking to implement these sort of systems should seek out CRM and data analysis software built specifically for government

Although accessing these platforms requires investments from the jurisdictions that use them, the technologies involved aren’t just commodities. So when Yochum writes that municipalities “are, for lack of a better word, ‘competing’ against other cities for residents, businesses, tax dollars, state grants, and federal grants,’ I don’t know if the competition metaphor is wholly appropriate. People don’t choose where to live like consumers choose products from vendorsat least the vast majority of people don’t. And relationships between cities are part of creating political geographies that work for people in a complex, economically insecure, and interdependent material landscape. In fact, cities and counties can work together for even greater transparency and efficient information delivery than they could alone, perhaps using joint powers authority like the kind that exists in California. Speaking of California, the state has other transparency-facilitating advantages as well: a robust home rule law, as well as being the pioneer of the Public Records Act, enacted in the late 1960s, requiring “municipalities to disclose government records to the public.” 

Finally, U.S. municipalists can look internationally to see how voters and residents can empower themselves using transparency tech. Kenyans are enacting tech fixes to make proceedings of parliament more accessible. Jordana monarchyis involving citizens in direct decisionmaking via a system called Ishki. Chile has the very nicely named Vota Inteligente, “informing Chilean citizens about corruption and policy debates through the use of social media.” Seoul has its own corruption reporting systems, while Peru, Russia and Germany have all adopted constituent conversation systems. And “[i]n India, technology and independent mass media has also allowed people to put pressure on the government to act against corruption and be more transparent . . . in Mumbai a number of groups of ‘activists, geeks, data people, lawyers and techies’ hold ‘datameetings’ to discuss how data and technology can be used transparently.”

Transparency is seen as a core valuethat is, a value that informs other values and policy criteria. It’s really a synthesis of the right to know with freedom of expression, as either of those values by themselves would be meaningless without the other. Both of these are enhanced by technology in accountable hands.