A Lesson in Government Transparency from an Unlikely Source

Working in local government, I can't think of a buzzword that currently holds more weight with the public than "transparency."  And the funny thing is that despite its seemingly semi-recent rise to importance, it's really nothing new.  In 1913, Louis Brandeis, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, famously said "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants..." referring to bankers at the turn of the century when financial reform was demanded after the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. He believed that by educating customers and investors through transparency, the public could best regulate bankers through the open market (i.e. poorly performing or corrupt bankers would no longer have customers and would go out of business on their own) and the government wouldn't need to regulate the types of deals that bankers made, nor the potential size of their profits.

The same principle has also been applied to government through a variety of "sunshine laws," including the most famous one, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). So why the additional push all of the sudden?  The reason it has gained so much steam as of late is because recent advances in technology have made both the ability to store and retrieve massive amounts of electronic data possible and relatively cheap to implement.  It's become so easy in fact, that many local governments have started dumping all sorts of data on their websites because more data = more transparency, right?  

Seriously...how did those bathtubs in those Cialis commercials get there anyway?

Seriously...how did those bathtubs in those Cialis commercials get there anyway?

Before you answer this question, take a moment to ponder a truly unique American phenomenon - the prescription drug commercial.  Have you ever laughed at the ridiculously long list of potential side effects mentioned and wondered why anyone would take the drug being advertised? What if I asked you to list three of the side effects from any of those commercials that you've seen a million times?  I'll even let you pick the drug/commercial.  Could you do it?

Chances are, probably not.  Even the FDA recognizes this and is currently conducting a study to determine the true impact of those long declarations at the end of each commercial.  In a recent statement, the agency said

"There is concern that as currently implemented in DTC [direct-to-consumer] ads, the major statement is often too long, which may result in reduced consumer comprehension, minimization of important risk information and, potentially, therapeutic noncompliance due to fear of side effects. At the same time, there is concern that DTC TV ads do not include adequate risk information or leave out important information."

Or in other words, more information often leads to less overall understanding and tends to either minimize or hide the information most important to the consumer.  In terms of government transparency, it's possible for the same to happen. Of course not sharing any information is not the answer, but no agency automatically deserves an "A" just for posting gobs of information online.  There will always be some individuals who have the skills and time to go through some of that information to find meaning, but the general public will not. And even those that display performance measures, charts, or other live data aren't necessarily living up to the original intent of transparency, because how do you know if they're displaying the data that the public wants and needs to accurately understand and judge their government's performance?  

Although improvements are being made by leaps and bounds in this area on the federal, state, and local levels, I've still struggled to find a local government agency that does transparency exceptionally well.  That was until this weekend, and it came from the most unlikely of places.  This transparency initiative wasn't from any financial or performance measurement office.  Although it included some interesting data, there were no spreadsheets or charts. And even though they have a great app, it's best experienced offline.  My new personal model for open government and transparency comes from the McLeod Plantation.

Wait a minute...a plantation? Did you hear the record scratch sound effect in your head there?  (Here's a clip if not.)  If you've never heard of the McLeod Plantation (and chances are that you haven't because it just opened to the public this spring), it is a former antebellum-era middle-class cotton plantation, which is now a historical site managed by Charleston County Parks & Recreation Commission (CCPRC) on James Island, outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  But you're probably asking yourself, "Okay, but what does a plantation have to do with government transparency?"  As it turns out, plenty.

Lessons in Government Transparency from McLeod Plantation

Here are 5 ways that McLeod Plantation gets local government transparency right.  And in equal fashion, if your government transparency efforts meet each item on this list, you can be pretty sure that yours hits the mark too.

1. You treat it like any other government service.  

Tom O'Rourke, CCPRC Executive Director was quoted as saying

"We're just excited about opening up this thing to the entire public, because the public owns this now.  It's their property, we're just stewards of it."  

The time and effort that it took to ensure that McLeod Plantation became public property is an interesting story of its own right, but the pride is evident in CCPRC staff at all levels from the Executive Director to the staff manning the gift shop.

Lesson Learned: While transparency efforts will probably never get as much fanfare as the opening of a new facility, it doesn't mean that they are any less important. When you post new information online related to transparency, do you market it or just slyly post it to your website hoping no one will notice for awhile?  Are transparency efforts part of any of your staff's job descriptions alongside customer service or relegated to falling under "other duties as assigned?"  Transparency efforts match up with public facilities in other ways as well.  For example, studies have shown the detriment of making playgrounds too safe.  Similarly, stripping data (GIS data is a prime example) of too much detail before posting it makes the information presented just as boring and pointless as a overly safe playground.  

However, just like there are justifiable reasons why certain areas of public facilities remain off-limits to the public, there are also reasons why some information should not be made available to the public.  For example, as a government employee, I understand that generally my salary and other compensation details are publicly available, but it would certainly make it a lot harder to receive honest feedback on my performance evaluations if those were also made available.  And as someone who works for a park & recreation agency, I think that we can all agree that the release of information about the youth in our programs should be protected.  For a list of accepted exemptions, view the national FOIA website.  Still, even if an exemption applies, government agencies should determine if the information may be released anyway if it would not cause any harm or break any laws.

2. It's easily accessible.

CCPRC obtained the land, made millions of dollars in improvements to it, and made it publicly available.  But if the agency had made it simply available like any other public park, it might not have been very effective as a historic site.  Generally, visitors understand how to use a set of swings or even basic trail etiquette.  But CCPRC knows that most people wouldn't have found McLeod Plantation very accessible without a little help.  For this reason, you'll find signage, guides, website, and even an app to help visitors understand what they are viewing.

Lesson Learned:  Accessible and available are not the same thing.  If your agency really wants to be transparent, it should make sure that the information isn't just available, but that it's presented in a manner in which the average resident can actually use and comprehend it.  Have you just posted massive Excel spreadsheets or PDFs on your website, or have you taken the time to provide some tools to make the information easier to discern?  Better yet, is the data available visually using charts and graphs?  

3. You don't clutter it with items that distract from the important details.  

Empty rooms in the plantation home ensured the focus was on the signage.

Empty rooms in the plantation home ensured the focus was on the signage.

Unlike many historical plantation homes, when you walk through the plantation house at McLeoad Plantation, you will not find yourself oohing and ahhing over the beautiful furnishing that make it feel like a set from Gone With the Wind.  That's because there are no furnishings. Excluding the random chair or mirror, the rooms are empty except for signs that read like the following: 

"The story of McLeod Plantation is a tale of tragedy and transcendence," as sign greeting visitors says. "Through generations of enslavement, a brutal war and the challenges of building lives amidst institutional inequality and oppression, African-Americans asserted their humanity while white plantation owners struggled to maintain power and wealth."

CCPRC understands from studying the history of the site and working with the community that the information that needs to be shared is not of the plantation home, but of the people that lived there and their struggle during slavery and transitioning afterwards.  A furnished home would only distract from that message.  The exterior of the home in comparison to the slave cabins on "Transition Row" is enough to make that inequality crystal clear.

Lesson Learned: It's important in any transparency efforts that the most important information is laid out for the public and not hidden among gobs of other data.  And how does an agency know what is the most important information to provide or highlight?  I'm sure that staff have a pretty good idea, but input from the public and other local experts and leaders can help.  What is important to an agency is not always what is important to its residents.  

There is nothing wrong with providing massive amount of data for businesses and people with the skills to use it, but governments should ensure that it does not mask the important information for the general public. The focus should be as much for the regular user as it should be any power users.

4. It's a dialogue, not a script.

Halifax leads our group in a tour of "Transition Row."

If you've taken any tours in the past, one thing that you may appreciate about the guides at McLeod Plantation is that they do not speak from scripts, but are instead trained to interpret information in order to share their story and interests and be able to adjust to be relevant to their audience. During the visit, we met one guide whose family is part of the Gullah Geechee culture and was able to authentically speak and answer questions from her perspective and history.  Consequently, taking a tour with her would inevitably result in a different experience than taking one from another tour guide.  But by also being able to go "off-script" (because there isn't one), that different experience could occur on a subsequent trip with the same tour guide because the visitor may ask different questions, show different interests, or she may have learned some new information to share.

The information that all guides share is still rooted in fact.  You won't hear a single one start a story with "Legend has it..."  But by allowing for this customization, it allows McLeod Plantation to continue to evolve and ensures that visitors can return multiple times and benefit from each one.

Lesson Learned: The best government transparency efforts should not be solely run by one department as part of a one-sided, routine process. Staff in all departments should get involved to authentically share information from all areas of the agency, and the sharing of that information should be done in a way that encourages interaction, participation, and dialogue with the public. And the information shared should be dynamic, meaning that it's updated as frequently as possible (which, with technology today often means that it is live), and that the topics or categories of information shared should change as public interest and priorities change.  The public should be able to revisit the information again at a later date and feel like they are learning something new.

5. Sharing the information feels uncomfortable (at least, at first).

Much of the information shared is focused on the people who lived in these slave cabins instead of those that lived in the plantation house.

As recent events in Charleston and the state of South Carolina have shown, the subject of the Civil War, slavery, and race is still in flux and is sometimes interpreted in different ways.  Because of their work with the public and studying the history of the site, CCRPC understood their responsibility to tell the whole truth, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make some people, including visitors, feel.  On our visit, Sean Halifax, CCPRC Cultural History Interpretation Coordinator, did not skirt the edges regarding the fact that McLeod Plantation was once home to slaves, what that meant, and what the consequences of that was for generations to come in South Carolina.  He struck the perfect balance in presenting the information by not hiding from it, but also not glorifying the violence either.  I assure you that that type of storytelling is not needed to understand the history, as facts spoken plainly and simply were enough to produce cringes and a few tears from the group.

Because we were with a group of fellow park & recreation professionals on a park & recreation site, Halifax shared a quote from O'Rourke from a local newspaper article published after the initial opening to highlight CCPRC's stance on how much truth it chooses to share.  It read:

“This agency has never hidden behind controversy and it’s never been nervous about truth. I am certain that some of the stories may not be to someone’s liking … and that’s okay,” began the Executive Director. “In our opinion, as an agency, when it comes to who we are and what we believe in, truth is pretty important.  We also believe that we can be an instrument of healing. There’s a lot of healing that still needs to be done right now. We feel like we can be a part of that with this site, but that’s not going to happen by not being real with the story.”

As a matter of context, this quote came before the shootings in Charleston, but only highlights why authenticity matters. Of course, no community or agency could ever be truly prepared for what happened, but I can only imagine that having this stance beforehand allowed CCPRC to better assist their community during and after the response.

Lesson Learned: The goal of true transparency is about being good, not looking good. Sometimes it can feel like the public demands that government actions be risk-free and mistake-free, but in reality, it's just not possible.  If you are truly being transparent in your reporting, you will show inevitably some areas where performance did not meet expectations (or at least what you hoped to accomplish).  And if you did actually meet every single target, I can assure that that is rarely a sign of success, but instead a sign that you are setting your sights too low.  Posting your information publicly unedited and with some failures alongside the successes should make you a bit anxious.  If you are sharing reports and other data that only shows the squeaky clean version of your agency, you are demonstrating examples of marketing, not transparency.  When I first posted all of our live dashboards on our website, I have to admit that it was a bit nerve-wracking (kind of like hitting the "Submit" button when I signed up for my first marathon) , even though we were really proud of what we'd put together and what we had accomplished.  Once it's up though, shortcomings and all, the reaction from the public is usually positive.

And while I would hope that no one reading this ever has to face a tragedy like what Charleston has faced, chances are that there will come a day when something will go wrong.  But if your agency has already worked to be transparent by showing where you excel, but also where you're not doing as well as hoped and what you're doing about it, the trust you will have earned will go a long way in the recovery efforts, whatever they may be.

How Do You Rank?

Even with our live dashboards and performance measurement reports, my own agency still has a way to go before we meet all 5 points that I've described above.  But now that I have a new picture to compare it to (and aspire to), making some of those tough decisions about how to make it happen will be a little easier.  

How does your agency value transparency efforts?  Where do you rank?  Do you know of any local governments that hit these marks?