July 7, 2011
Editor’s Note: For the past year, students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs researched and analyzed how the Texas government could be more transparent. Passage of the transparency bill authored by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is a step in the right direction by encouraging agencies to publish high-value information. In this commentary, students discuss their research and recommendations and explain why passage of this bill is a watershed change in the way we think of open government. The student researchers were under the direction of LBJ School instructor Sherri Greenberg, who represented a Travis County district in the Texas House.
With the passing of the Texas Senate’s transparency bill, the days of just slapping up a PDF are over. Digital technology has transformed the public sphere and the notion of online transparency, open government and civic engagement, and now the state government is following suit.
With soaring deficits and shrinking budgets, stakes are high when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. The public is more invested than ever in knowing where its money is going. Open government is now becoming a vehicle for informing and engaging the public, and is further bolstered by the passage of the bipartisan bill encouraging agencies to publish “high-value data sets” online and within two clicks of the agency’s home page.
Texas online transparency efforts are the subject of our policy research project, State Finance and Online Transparency, at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs. Our report, “Texas Transparency: Beyond Raw Data,” is available online.
In recent years, Texas has been a leader in open government efforts, from the Legislative Budget Board going online in the early 1990s, to the comptroller’s office publishing state spending and contract information online and encouraging local entities to do the same. The City of Manor has been recognized nationally for its innovative transparency efforts on a limited budget.
However, problems arise when state agencies make financial data available online to the public that is difficult for a layperson to locate and analyze. The Texas Education Agency, for instance, epitomizes transparency by making raw data available to the public, through one of the largest education databases in the world. Nevertheless, the data can be hard to find, as they are distributed among three websites. If people are able to locate data of interest, they may have difficulty opening them or understanding them.
Our research confirms that simply posting raw data online is not enough. Formerly considered hallmark principles of transparency, exportable, machine-readable and editable data now seem to be the bare minimum. Agencies such as the Texas Education Agency have made considerable and commendable steps toward transparency, but they face significant barriers to more meaningful civic engagement.
For agencies to effectively engage with the public, data must be formatted in a way that allows the public and advocacy organizations, media outlets and public policy analysts to understand them and respond to them. To the extent that it is feasible, agencies should continue to provide raw data in accessible, machine-readable and exportable formats, but they should also provide context, explanations and visuals with public consumption in mind. Even with limited resources, government agencies can promote civic engagement through their online transparency efforts by being adaptable to changing technologies.
As governments continue to slash their budgets, funding for transparency, like everything else, is on the chopping block. Yet, as the budget belt tightens, constituents will hold governments more accountable than ever before to spend public dollars wisely. The good news is that there are free Web tools for governments to make data more accessible to constituents.
The City of Manor has proved that by using these free tools to summarize data through visuals, sharing data through social media outlets, and soliciting feedback through comments or wikis, even local governments can meet higher standards of transparency with a tight budget.
However, the onus for engaging the public does not rest solely on government shoulders. Advocacy groups, the media and analysts are vital to providing the public with government data, enabling communication and ensuring that the government understands the needs and priorities of the public. Our report identifies specific ways these groups and governments can improve transparency, even in times of fiscal stress.
The Internet has revolutionized civic engagement. The meaning of “transparency” will continue to evolve with technology and public expectation. Our research shows that online transparency must foster understanding, provide context and promote interactivity to truly engage the public. With increased efforts such as the passing of the new transparency bill, we can shift from e-government to e-governance — a truly virtual government that promotes civic engagement.