Real-time transparency is it possible? Yes and it makes the difference
Transparency is undoubtedly a trend in public governance. The open government, possibly the trending topic in public governance requires to be transparent and accountable as the basis for public management.
Many regions, municipalities and the central government of Spain have passed laws supporting transparency and the right of information. Even more, some private standards even more fashionable than the laws are widely used by the public entities.
And this is one of the current problems we have. There is a national transparency law in Spain (2013), but there is not a regulation providing some minor details as a penalty system. Therefore it is true that there is a law, but it hardly difficult that you can be punished as long as it is not defined are what the consequences of breaking the law.
However in the private standards there is a penalty system, the media. If your public entity appear in the last positions of the ranking you are doomed. You will have to provide explanations about why some other entities (some of them possibly close to you and manage by other political parties) have a higher score.
On the other hand those entities with high scores in such rankings can sleep for ever. They can justified everything they do because they are ‘officially’ transparent. Currently 26 out 110 cities scored 100% in such rankings. and more than 70 out of this 110 score higher than 90%. Would not be you proud of being 90%?. The political leaders of these cities they really are.
However it is need to know what are the limitations of such ‘photo’ rankings. They assess public entities once every two or three years, so in the middle of such assessments transparency could be zero and they would keep their score. Even more few details are required about how the information is disclosed .
In example, pdf is a quite valid format, even those in image format that are not even searchable for a single term. You would need to manually read the full document in order to find out something. And of course no calculations, filters, etc are available with those released information.
In 2017 that cannot be considered properly transparency.
Let see some examples. Try to find out what is the overall amount of money spent by Gijon city (a 100% transparency city) in minor contracts. Or try to find out based on its historical ‘database’ of them. Challenging, isn’t it?. Or try to find out how many contracts has won a company in the municipality of León (another 100% in transparency). What about the immovable properties. Why all of them have 1m2 of surface and all of them were acquired on the 1-1-1980? Is this transparency? Or finally try to find the annual accounts of 2016, in the transparency portal of Soria (bear in mind that we are by the end of 2017). Yes, it is another 100% transparency city.
Being only details, these situations described a context where actual transparency is easily cheated. This happens not only because there is a will to cheat on transparency (It cannot be ruled out), but because they are in the ‘old’ approach to transparency. And with such approach it is a matter of resources. Let’s imagine that you have to collect manually all the information you have in the 80 indicators of transparency of some of the most popular transparency indexes. Every detail could entail hundreds or even thousands of registers spread across the different departments of the public entity. Make those data coherent and publishable would require a full team of people dedicating months of work in order to gather such amount of information just to be published once every two years.
Could you imagine whether the required information would have to be be published yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly? With the current approach it is impossible. There are not resources in any city to be updated. Some of the missing information in the examples is mostly due to such approach.
So real-time transparency is possible? It is definitely possible. However it requires from some structural changes in the way we manage information. It is no longer possible to manually collect the information. Everything (most of it) has to be automated, digitalised, otherwise as described previously, public institutions will not be able to afford transparency.
Is that all? Mostly yes. However to be digitalised requires from and active data governance policy implemented across the institution. Data governance would manage the inventory of data resources (the list of datasets to be actively managed) and even more it has to create a data dictionary (the description of the key fields) on any of those inventoried datasets. It requires to have a dedicated area to managed data (different from the responsible area managing IT systems). It also requires from a data standardisation across the entity, and some other thing. to marked those datasets with personal data and security concerns, etc. Just for transparency? Not at all. Data governance is a must in current public administrations. The increasing amount of information urged by other institutions and regulations force entities to structure their internal data management. Otherwise it is not affordable not even possible.
So, by the end, transparency depends on two simple things. The political will to be transparent and the right data management internal of the institutions. Unfortunately none of the are easily found these days. And in the second one it also requires from experience and some resources. But it definitely worth the effort and the results outweigh the investment.