‘Transparency’ only sounds easy when it’s not your problem

Imagine you’re President Obama—just for a moment.  You’re about to be authorized to spend over $800 billion to stimulate the economy, and you’ve promised to make sure that everybody knows how the money is being spent as it happens.

How do you do that?

This is a time, after all, when people already have trouble keeping track of their loose change, email passwords, and Facebook “friends.”  What’s the best way to make sure everybody knows how $800 billion is working its way through the economy? 

To address this challenge, Obama (the real one)has announced that he’ll put updated details of stimulus spending on a website – an unprecedented display of openness, which he also hopes will “root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government.”

But will a website be enough?  According to Gary Metcalf, an Organizational Systems faculty member at Saybrook who teaches classes at the Federal Executive Institute, “pure transparency,” what Obama is suggesting, may cause almost as many problems as it solves.

“The difficulty will be that apparently simple information, like the raw data on a website, will get interpreted in many, many different ways,” Metcalf says.  “Without understanding how the money impacts different sectors of the economy, and how these sectors impact the economy as a whole, the numbers themselves don’t necessarily make sense.”

When it comes to stimulating the economy, after all, spending money on the auto industry has a different impact from the financial industry, which is different from the steel industry.  Many of us know that … kind of … but most of us couldn’t explain it. 

Pure transparency, Metcalf says, will therefore give the public all the information there is without helping to decipher it.  That means “open” government, yes, but not necessarily “useful” government. 

At the same time, attempting to provide too much context for the raw information means opening up an ideological can of worms:  the same economic data will get interpreted very differently by liberals and conservatives, and they may accuse the Obama administration of trying to “spin” it. 

“One side sees money to individuals and government agencies as inherently waste. Only businesses and wealthy people create jobs.  The other sees money to those who have it as just encouraging more greed, and ignoring those who need it, etc. and etc.,” Metcalf says.  “The real problem now is that no one seems to have a clear idea about what will stimulate the economy again.  And until people have confidence to start spending money again, companies will continue laying off workers.”

Metcalf’s suggestion … if HE were Obama … would be to provide the raw data on a website, and include with it some basic assertions, not of effect (what it will do) but of intent (what it is intended to accomplish).  The administration could still be accused of being wrong—or wrongheaded—but it likely won’t be accused of being inaccurate. 

 “Effective transparency, I think, will require interpretation without political spin:  ‘Here’s where the money went, and here’s why, and here’s what we hope it will accomplish,’” Metcalf said.  “And, if you want to get really messy, ‘… here’s who is responsible for this effort.’”  Be honest, and keep it basic.

It’s not perfect – but then, that’s politics.