Four flavors of transparency? That doesn’t even make sense!!
Okay, let’s call them methods for achieving transparency, and let’s be even more explicit by saying that your government should be doing all four: proactively disseminating information, reactively disclosing information, holding open public meetings, and encouraging leaks from whistleblowers. But before we delve into those in too much detail, let’s step back and define transparency:
Government transparency is the sharing of government information either through dissemination or disclosure.
So all of that information access stuff that we spent a lot of time discussing the complexities of? This is why it’s important. If your government doesn’t know how to provide access to its information, then they will not be successful in sharing that information, and so they will not be transparent!
First: an open government should proactively disseminate information to the public without waiting to be asked. This is the holy grail of information access and is one of the key factors that separates a government from an open government. Proactive dissemination makes it easy for you to access government information and also makes it easier for the government by reducing the need to use the second method.
Second: reactive disclosure means that an open government should provide a way for any citizen to file a formal request for the government to release a particular piece of information. This is generally known as Freedom of Information or FOI. You may hear this lengthened into FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) or FOIL (Freedom of Information Law), depending on the name of your local FOI law — and you need to have one for it to work — but it all references your ability to get access to information that you want and the government has.
Third: holding open meetings enables the public to see how the government decision-making process works. This means that you can attend the meeting or watch it on tv or the Internet. This is usually enshrined in a law that makes certain that when your city council or Senate or Parliament meet to conduct formal business and make official decisions, you’re able to see what they do and how they do it. Most of these laws only allow you to watch – not to actually participate or have your voice heard however.
Fourth: whistleblowing. This is the final line of defense against government corruption or misconduct. A whistleblower is someone, usually a government employee, who sees something is wrong and does one or more of the following: 1) reports it to the police or the ethics bureau or inspector general of their department, 2) refuses to engage in it themselves, 3) testifies about it in court or to a Congressional oversight committee, and 4) report it to the public. As you can probably guess, this can lead to bad things for the whistleblower, like getting fired, publicly humiliated, and being intimidated or threatened. An open government will have laws in place to protect whistleblowers and will also foster that culture of integrity that is so important.
One of the first laws to protect whistleblowers is the False Claims Act of 1863 in the United States (also known as the Lincoln Act). Since then, governments around the world have begun to establish and expand legal protection for whistleblowers.