Illustration: Opening government and protecting privacy are initiatives that can often travel in opposite directions.

"Transparency" is an up-and-coming buzzword that is finding its way into the national conversation at the federal, state and local levels. Its continued rise to prominence is pretty well assured when the new administration takes office because President-Elect Obama has been associated with federal transparency initiatives for years and has, at least for some federal agency CIOs, made transparency an important part of the transition dialog.

But what does transparency mean for the agency head or IT manager who has been instructed to make his or her agency "more transparent"? What are some of the key issues and architectural considerations that need to be addressed?

Government Transparency

First, some background. Although "transparency" as a term has earned recent cachet, the debate about it is quite old, often found in discussions about government openness or implicit in discussions about public disclosure policies and the Freedom of Information Act. And while its current use focuses on opening up government processes, it has also been used as a political tool to bring about changes in the private sector. In their book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, authors Fung, Graham and Weil explore the public policy implications of transparency generally and identify "targeted transparency" as a tool available to federal, state and local leaders to help redress wrongs and increase public safety. They cite federal mandates for public disclosure of automobile rollover risks as an example of its use. In that case, the federal government required disclosure by private companies of specified product safety data with the intent of helping consumers make more informed choices and to leverage natural market forces to bring about long-term improvements. It worked.

But for the agency head, transparency means something different -- it means opening up the records, information and processes of the agency to timely public inspection and, further, opening up communication lines for the public to talk back. In other words, we're now talking about providing a means for them to comment on what they see or would like to see.

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David Aden  | 
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.