The magazine stand at a grocery store can be an amazing gift at times for gauging public opinion, political controversies, business practices and shifts in intellectual direction. In 2007, a bright pink Wired cover caught my attention on the magazine stand. The cover of the magazine had a transparent overlay, bearing Jenna Fischer of NBC's The Office wearing a suit, holding a sign that read "Get Naked and...." In an effort to satisfy my curiosity, I peeled back the transparent cover to peer at what was underneath. It was Fischer, completely nude, holding another sign that read at the top, "...Rule the World." A series of articles within introduced a concept that has become very popular in the wake of the political climate over the last several years and the Wall Street Armageddon: transparency.
Within an article entitled "The See-Through CEO," Clive Thompson discussed the emerging private sector practice of "radical transparency," where corporations, contrary to tradition, were blogging about their mistakes, engaging in open conversations with consumers and switching from a world of corporate secrecy to one of relative openness. What has stuck with me is the last sentence on the sign from the cover: "So strip down and learn how to have it all by baring it all." This, in essence, is also the sentiment underlying the push for transparency within the movement known as "Government 2.0."
Is this proposition about radical transparency true? And more so, can something that is still fairly new, and not at all well embraced in the private sector, be injected into public sector practice? The last few years have literally brought ideas like this into the lab (Sunlight Labs). While there have been many innovative and successful government data sharing projects, it is still debatable whether governments really get it. Has the Government 2.0 demand for websites and tweets swept the general idea of "radical" transparency and better customer service aside?
When corporations engage in transparency practices, it is not altruistic by any means: it is a form of reputation management. This leads me to a dangerous question: Are we creating an impression in the Government 2.0 movement that tools like upgraded websites and social media are the solution to better government, just resulting in a form of reputation management when under the surface, the government still may not work?
A back-and-forth on Twitter between some of my "tweeps" today sparked this line of questioning. Some pointed out how even when governments invest in technology, they are still unresponsive, prompted by a recent Washington Post piece on the State of Maryland. Others did not believe it was an intentional lack of responsiveness, but rather that the government culture has yet to catch up with the technology.
My thoughts? We need to teach public administrators how to "get naked." Transparency is not something intuitive; it has to be learned, especially when it comes to an organizational culture that is anything but. While I reject the idea that one can have it all by completely bearing it all, one can at least shift the momentum from a culture of public criticism to a culture of cooperation by showing a little administrative "skin" from time to time.
After all, getting naked can be a lot harder than it seems.
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