COMMENTARY

Transparency: A backlash in the making

Anthony Williams is co-author of the best-selling "Wikinomics" and its recent follow-up, "Macrowikinomics," a visiting fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, and an advisory board member at GovLoop.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks imbroglio, advocates will need harder proof that open government can really deliver the goods. Without it, executives and managers will lack the ammunition they need to fend off critics and ensure that today’s beta tests evolve into a lasting and pervasive transformation of how the government operates.

The open-government movement spread its wings in 2010. Data.gov — a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive — grew rapidly to more than 270,000 assets as most federal agencies got on board. NASA and the Energy Department reached out to the public with significant innovation contests using Challenge.gov, the administration’s crowdsourcing platform. Even regulatory bodies showed signs of change when the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection announced its intention to use the latest crowdsourcing technology to collect tips from millions of consumers about deceptive financial practices, including misleading mortgages and improper, gotcha fees on credit cards.

But with Julian Assange and company rooting around for more incriminating leaks, all this openness is making many in Washington nervous. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced that Republicans will prioritize a congressional inquiry into WikiLeaks and suggested that the new Congress will pass legislation to try to prevent similar acts of whistle-blowing in the future.

Whether the investigations or the new legislation will have a direct bearing on specific open-government initiatives remains to be seen. Of more concern to the federal community is the prospect that a swing of the pendulum toward greater secrecy could slow the movement toward open government and perhaps even reverse some of the gains made under the Obama administration.

For critics, WikiLeaks represents a mortal threat to the legitimate need for privacy in official government communications. Uncontrolled, radical transparency, they claim, will not only undermine essential functions of the U.S. government, it will encourage greater secrecy — the opposite of what transparency advocates desire.

Although those critics generally accept the need for openness, they want managed transparency in which elected officials and their delegates exercise greater caution in deciding what information to disclose and when. The risk is that agency leaders who remain suspicious of open government could now use WikiLeaks as a justification for withholding pertinent information from the public.

Recalcitrant officials could likewise cite security concerns to put the kibosh on interagency data sharing and cloud computing initiatives that administration leaders, including federal CIO Vivek Kundra and federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, have championed as a way to dismantle the organizational silos that inhibit effective collaboration in government.

Supporters of open government have been vocal about what distinguishes their objectives and methods from the comparatively radical vision espoused by Assange and his supporters. But to ensure that open government achieves true liftoff, advocates and practitioners will need to go further. They must demonstrate that empowering public servants to collaborate openly with citizens, nonprofit organizations and private businesses will lead to superior public services and lower costs and help solve critical national challenges more expeditiously.

Only with hard proof of the benefits of open government can we safely assume that the movement won't be derailed. Even then, terrorist attacks, economic downturns and reactionary forces could occasionally result in minor setbacks for open government.

About the Author

Anthony D. Williams is the co-author of the best-selling Wikinomics and its recent followup Macrowikinomics, and a visiting fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

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