Better Incentives Than “We Will Watch You”

I was at a get-together recently where people were asking “how do we sell government on transparency?” The general context was: we don’t like quantity or quality of data the city government is giving us.

The idea people offered were things like it’s our data, we paid for it, and it is important for people to be monitoring government.

This is terrible marketing. I imagine a politician hearing this and translating it in his or her head to “tell me what you are doing so I can better complain about you.”

So what would be a more compelling way to sell this to government officials? Some ideas:

Government needs to be transparent to itself, not just to the public. If the public can’t get some important data, probably not many other people in government can access it either. Transparency is a tool for government. When you talk to a government official, don’t be an ass and say things like “the public needs to watch you!” That’s just not polite. “The public needs to watch those other guys!” – that’s how you sell an idea.

A related argument: there’s a lot of data. Decision-makers in government don’t spend their days playing around with a spreadsheet to find items of interest. So why not let the public try their hand at it?

Another idea: instead of it’s our data, we paid for it! say: let us do interesting things with this data! For example, the MTA is not letting Google release the transit feed for New York. They are missing out on the opportunity for other people to build tools around the MTA, tools that will help the public and the MTA, and cost nothing. Every agency wants people to think it is important and useful, so anything that makes an agency’s work more present in people’s minds is positive.

Or: data is a tool for advocacy. When you say “people need to monitor government” there’s a sense that The People are out to get the government. But The People can also be an advocate, and for any particular person in government they probably have things they want to see happen that could use some advocacy. So you should speak directly to what an official would like to see happening. Uncovering corruption might not get Mayor Daley excited. But if you can think of a way that transparency could help Chicago get the Olympics, then you are talking his language. Transit organizations want to know how to get higher ridership, and ridership that will advocate for funding. Teachers want to know how to balance power with school administration. School administrators want to know how to get parents more involved. Police want to seem more friendly. The Department of Motor Vehicles would like to stop being the butt of all government-bureaucracy-related jokes.

And above all: we should all try really hard not to sound whiney. Given the power dynamic it’s hard.