Transparency is a funny thing. At first, you’d think that it means everyone wearing clear plastic dresses. A little bit of thought and you realize that almost everyone will want to wear some form of underwear under their see-thru clothing. A little more digging unearths the idea that some people and ideas will want to wear their clear clothes over their current set.
The point was made early in the day when a smart person asked the Sunlight Board chaorman whether all of their board meetings were open. This was in the first session of the day, the open board meeting.
Of course, some decisions need to be made behind closed doors. The opposite of transparency is privacy and at least some of what has to be protected is the ability to discuss strategic and/or personnel related issues. Organizations (including governments) need privacy to get some of their work done. A constant glaring spotlight is not going to be perfectly helpful.
There’s another layer to transparency as well. Later in the morning, the founder of usa.gov delivered a common sense talk about doing business with the government. He described 4 key elements: 1. Know the rules 2. Find a champion 3. Develop relationships first 4. Expect a battle, not a thank you. These are common sense notions about building support for any project in any context.
He made a really interesting point about how to build a collection of sponsors and advocates. By making each sposor’s role bite sized and incremental, you give your sponsor political cover. If they’re only in an inch, the can easily disassociate themselves from you if you lose. The point is to never burden your sponsors with more risk than reward. The best approach is to only give value while keeping the risk in your portfolio.
In an earlier time, this was called ‘plausible deniability’. While it is, in fact, great strategy, it was funny to hear the advice given in this context.
The next session was a presentation by analyzethe.us. This is a publicly available tool that tracks lobbyists, legislation, contribution flows and contracts. The output is a map of influence that looks like an organized crime network map.
It would be amazing to have this sort of mapping in the non-governmental sectors. The government, by design, documents and generates data. The social networks that drive industries and communities are nowhere near as data rich. This form of analysis sheds interesting light on the realities of influence in government.
The work associated with mining existing data is enormous. The prospect of real innovation in data (mashing disparate data to drive novel conclusions) seems to be a long way away. The privacy and civil rights implications of this stuff are enormous.