Advice for President Obama on Transparency
Max’s advice for February 10, 2009
Dear President Obama,
Max grew up as the son of a man who knew ‘ALL’ the answers to the problems of the world. Max’s father said so! Many times, his father let everyone know that anyone who didn’t know that he had the answers was a turkey or a knucklehead.
The famous Ma Bell, the second most powerful force in the world (next to God of course), thought so much of Max’s father’s opinions, that she made him ‘Supervisor of Troubles’. This is true!
The advice Max promised you, President Obama.
President Obama, keep up the effort that you started in 2006 to make the government open!
In 2006 you were among the leaders of the effort to make the government more transparent. Now you are the leader of that government. It is a government that for too many Americans is hidden by distance (located in Washington, D.C.) and by language (talk that considers anything less than a billion unworthy of conversation.)
Transparency is going to require much more than a simple government website. Websites like the OMB site and ‘recovery.gov’ are really good starts. To be successful they are going to have to capture the questions as people seek information.
This is something the social sites do fairly well. Government sites and even watchdog sites often tend to assume people understand what they are seeing. Your recent show and tell trips to Indiana and Florida hopefully gave you a better sense of the complexity that is added by the individuals search for the meaning.
For example, saying that ten million dollars was spent on a building in someone’s town will only translate well if you can show the details of why it cost so much and how it benefited the community.
Ten million spent on a building the person doesn’t use and does not compare favorably with recent work on another building in town where five hundred thousand produced similar results can easily be misunderstood. The danger of graft, payoffs and jacked prices are always present when the government appears to be throwing money at problems.
Max’s grandfather, a man who he never met, made a fortune from FDR during the great depression. His other grandfather suffered through some of the most painful years of deprivation during the same time. It was a case of one man getting all the rewards of the recovery package while another received none. What Max’s grandfather did was fair and legal. The recovery package that FDR provided in central Maine was skewed toward people who had the means to put people to work.
While Max’s father was growing up in this period doing without, Max’s mother was vacationing three months every year in Florida. One of Max’s parents knew the Great Depression very personally. The other didn’t even know it ever happened.
As you struggle to make this legislation work, making the expenditures transparent so that everyone can see how the actions help or fail to help their personal situations should enable you to get the feedback you need to bring everyone on board.
What FDR did was the best that could have been done at the time. Real transparency, much less political will, was possible in a time where radio was the only real thing that connected the country.
The use of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS) to enable more detailed explanations and graphical descriptions is something that may make your information more fathomable.
The government does have some good models of websites developed by the Social Security Administration and other agencies where it is becoming easier to get clarification.
The 2006 Act that you played an important role in getting through the Senate is a good beginning. It is clear from the questions people have asked you that either people don’t know about the website or the website is too immature in its presentation of information.
One element Max was not impressed with were the pictures on the first page where the most important data of the day should have been. Max knows what you look like. Your picture (and the head of OMB) is all over the place. Max wanted to know how the current budget looked. Is that not what should be up front when the citizens go to the site?
Even Facebook, which is all about seeing your own picture plus friends, has the most important communications data (text) as the dominant feature. The bottom of the OMB site with the links to important data should be moved to the top of the page.
Max doesn’t like to be so tough on you but design was something he did for information sites for a few decades. The client, in this case the public, should be able to get to the data they care about in no more than one or two clicks. The OMB site is very messy and because it depends heavily on other sites, pretty close to useless. It makes the government that you are heading more opaque, not more transparent.
The OMB site needs to find a better way of displaying data than sending citizen scurrying about in a maze of other sites. Some of the other sites don’t exist except in name. If they don’t exist that makes your administration look very opaque. You may suggest to your OMB director that openness requires real data. Links that lead to nowhere and to pages not yet created are appalling and extremely unprofessional.
The OMB website is a case of “the Emperor has no clothes”. I encourage everyone to go out to it and try and find an iota of real data. The OMB has had nearly two years to do something and all they have done is put up a few blurbs about how great they are. Someone forgot to tell them that you cannot manage invisible funds. They either have budget data or they don’t. Max is very upset with the wall of mirrors. Every citizen interested in the U.S. budget should check out the site and the links that lead to dead ends
(sorry about that, but former professionals get bent out of shape when they see shoddy work).
Fortunately we have the watchdog sites which, to their credit, are easier to follow though they too could be improved. They do, however, contain real data that can inform the citizens, unlike their government counterpart.
Max wishes you well in all your efforts to provide real transparency.
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Link one is the Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006.
Link two is a watchdog group that displays government contract and spending data in a rational format.
Link three is the Office of Management and Budgets site that is intended to comply with the legislation.