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Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy

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February 2008

Obama Tech Plan: Transparency is key

Some important evidence supporting transparency as key features of e-government:

“The Plan calls for citizen engagement in the work of federal agencies
and demonstrates respect for the intelligence and expertise of the
American people. He calls for opening up the closed practices of
government and using new technology to enable genuine citizen
participation and engagement in our democracy.”

Cairns Blog: Barack Obama Unveils Unprecedented Plan for Open Government

web2 in e-gov has an impact: peertopatent

Recent update on how the US patent office uses the output of peer-to-patent.
At a first glance, the imapct is visible. All 10 reviews used the evidence gathered by peertopatent, and 2 decisions were made mainly based on this.
I also have some doubts, but for future posts

Peer to Patent: USPTO Office Actions and Early Peer-to-Patent Results

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what are the most important data to be made public?

One of the key issues to discuss is the definition of public data.
The 8 principles state that this is different in every country. Is there a shared definition, or at least a minimal definition, at international level? is there a list / taxonomy of data?

Let’s start a list – I largely draw on existing projects:
– air pollution data
– planning applications (privacy concerns?)
– public spending data (incl. structural funds, agricultural funds)
– legislative documents (also draft?)
– MPs votes
– party donations
– maps (to be better specified)
– citizens feedback / satisfaction surveys
– external consultancies

Feel free to add your favorite data or tell your priorities.

initiative: open budget index

following Jack’s suggestion , I had a look at the Open Budget Index.
Very interesting: they developed a system to measure the transparency of the budget in 59 countries.
Based on a questionnaire survey, and on analysis of the policy documents, they arrive to the following index ranking (only top10):

  1. France
  2. United Kingdom
  3. New Zealand
  4. South Africa
  5. Slovenia
  6. US
  7. Peru
  8. Sweden
  9. Poland
  10. Brazil

Interesting mix!

One of the interesting things they do concerns the classification of “stages” of availability of documents:
A. Not produced, even for internal purposes
B. Produced for internal purposes, but not available to the public
C. Produced and available to the public, but only on request
D. Produced and distributed to the public (for example, in libraries, posted on the Internet.)

My main criticisms about this methodology: it’s expensive as it involves questionnaire surveys (rather than website survey); the index is too complex, a compound indicator is always more disputable.

Paul Johnston’s proposals on benchmarking egov2.0

Interesting contributions to the discussion by Paul Johnston of Connected Republic (a Cisco initiative). He makes some specific proposals on indicators to measure transparency in one of his latest posts.

A mathematical explanation of this discussion

The question of this blog can be expressed as such:
online services : benchmarking egov1.0 = X : benchmarking egov2.0

Which can also be simplified:
online services : egov1.0 = X : egov2.0

the question is: X = transparency?

PS: I like to simplify; sometimes too much perhaps.

Is transparency key? Comments from Patrizia Fariselli

In response to my earlier question, I received valuable insights from Patrizia Fariselli of Universita’ Cattolica di Milano. (Thanks!) Her main argument is that transparency counts only if “related to specific policy/bureaucratic objects and processes”. My argument is that (web-based) transparency could drive this change, rather than wait for it to happen.
>>

I agree on the above comments, but they claim for a clearer definition of transparency, whose ambiguity explains the current rhetorical, often misleading use.

Transparency is not a quality per se – as ‘good governance’ is. In a democratic setting transparency gets value when and if it is functional to the achievement of good governance. In a democratic setting, government (Gov) and public administration (PA) play a public role – to serve the collective – under the collective’s political mandate. Over time, the cumulative knowledge, competence, and practice of Gov/PA apparatus concur to a stability and effectiveness net effect, against the political turnover. Yet, that does not justify any conceptual separation between the policy making/bureaucratic sphere and the citizens sphere, whose continuous interplay make sense of the ‘public’ quality of the Gov/PA role and services.

Instead, such a separation is implicitly assumed in the models forcing the Gov/PA/citizens political relationship into the management mono-dimension, where efficiency and consumer satisfaction become the prevailing evaluation criteria. Within these models, which transform the interactive/political relationship into a vertical/managerial one, the Gov/PA are or are to be (with the support of digital network technologies) efficient suppliers of services to the tax payers/consumers.

Within such a framework, the notion of transparency is the same as in the market context: it addresses typical performance, competition and consumer choice issues, although in the public sphere there are no competitors, no prices, no alternative goods/services.

For citizens/consumers transparency would mean to be ensured that the service is available at the lower cost and that the supplied service is exactly the necessary one.

Further transparency, such as a (digital) window to watch policy makers and bureaucrats at work, or an electronic cahier de doleances for connected citizens, is as much possible as much inessential, because citizens/consumers are given voice options in a double disproportionate way: on the one hand, minorities of citizens accessing additional communication (digital) channels may over-influence the political and policy course, but on the other hand, that would create a mediatic distorsion more than an impact on the political/policy processes.

Within the model of political mandate from citizens to administrators serving the collective with public services, transparency takes a different and more substantial meaning. It has to do with control, accountability, feed-back and change. These criteria make transparency an effective tool for policy evaluation and design, to the extent it penetrates into policy making and bureaucratic processes – that is it becomes structural component – instead of an imperfect overlap of separated communication channels with unbalanced power.

Therefore transparency does not matter per se, but it matters if tightly coupled with specific policy/bureaucratic objects and processes. More than a one-way effort of good-will citizens/consumers to break the glass protecting the ‘suppliers’, transparency must have an organisational dimension, which may be dramatically enhanced in the so-called e-Government.

Citizens’ access to public information related to specific policy/bureaucratic objects and processes is indispensable to make transparency an effective tool for improving the interactive/political relationship between citizens and administrators, rather than a rhetorical escamotage. Open access to public information increases the power of control/feedback/change not only of the end-segment of the political chain (the individual citizen), but also of the intermediaries – who need to be insiders to play their role – and of the Gov/PA communities, who are not only dispenser, but also users of public information for implementing and for being accountable for ‘good governance’.

Is benchmarking useful or misleading for e-government?

I received valuable objections on benchmarking from people of “The Connected Republic”, an initiative launched by Cisco.

I agree with the objections, but still think benchmarking has done more good than bad.

See here

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