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How to Embed Transparency into Collaborative Governance

What is the proper role of government transparency in collaborative governance? Is it just about improving information management practices such as processing and storing huge data sets? Otherwise, is something more than that?

In response to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, local governments have increased the level of information they disclose to the public through websites in an effort to become more transparent. This one-way top-down data push aims to inform citizens of governmental activities. Although this may increase the accountability of government by allowing public scrutiny, transparency achieved by unidirectional and hierarchal communication is not enough to achieve collaborative governance.

In Public Participation and Collaborative Governance, Newman et al. highlight partnerships between government and citizens designed to solve a number of ‘cross-cutting’ policy problems. Solving complex challenges facing society requires collective intelligence widely distributed outside of government, beyond simply informing citizens. Thus, government calls for dynamic interactions with citizens to tap into “the wisdom of crowds.”

Furthermore, collaborative governance more equally distributes problem-solving and decision making power among all participants from both government and the public. Citizens involved in collaborative efforts with government do not simply passively receive information and provide feedback on governmental decisions that have already occurred. Rather, citizens actively share information, express their preferences, develop common understanding and identify innovative solutions to public problems – through multi-directional interactions with government- participating in all phases of the decision-making process.

To successfully operationalize government transparency for collaborative governance, I suggest the model of “embedded” transparency. According to Oxford Dictionaries, “to embed” is to implant an idea so that it becomes ingrained within a particular context. By this definition, embedding transparency into collaborative governance implies integrating transparency into the context of collaborative governance. Since transparency concerns the disclosure of information, I define “embedded transparency” as integrating the disclosure of information into the process of government-public collaboration activities for problem-solving.

Embedded transparency goes through four phases of “dynamic communication”– see, understand, integrate, and track – that solicit active flows of information between government and citizens. Dynamic communication makes participants informed and helps their ideation. Successfully generating embedded transparency depends on government’s ability to facilitate dynamic communication.


Dynamic Communication

See. The first phase of dynamic communication is see. This phase aims to build targeted information that government and citizens provide. Targeted information is a specific kind of information on a given policy problem by either government or citizens. Government and citizens build targeted information collectively by disclosing their own knowledge and perspectives to each other. In this phase, citizens can see what government is doing to address a certain policy problem, while government can see citizens’ needs, preferences and perspectives about the policy problem. The targeted information consequently helps participants of the collaborative partnership realize the gap between their approaches to a given policy problem.

Understand. The second phase of dynamic communication is understand. This phase aims to reduce the gap between participants’ approaches to a certain policy problem. In this phase, the participants build mutual understanding of why their conflicts arise. Government can identify where it fails to meet citizens’ needs in addressing a given policy problem. Citizens can understand why government has dealt with the policy problem in a certain way and the obstacles to government’s activity. This phase opens the chance of integrating knowledge and perspectives from diverse stakeholders into the collaborative conversation as a starting point to develop innovative solutions to policy problems.

Integrate. The third phase of dynamic communication is integrate. This phase aims to develop a creative and viable solution to a given policy problem by integrating the targeted information and mutual understanding developed in the former phases. The integrated knowledge becomes a useful resource to help participants discover what they are missing to fix a certain policy problem. In this phase, the participants engage in collective action aimed at finding the substantial factors that influence a specific policy problem. The collective action of participants also includes examining their constraints and available resources in relations to a given policy problem. Such consideration helps the participants develop an innovative and feasible solution to a given policy challenge.

Track. The last phase of dynamic communication is track. This phase aims to enable citizens to monitor the results of collaborative communication. Government officials have a responsibility to inform citizens of how government has dealt with the suggestions by citizens in real policy decisions and actions. Through an official medium such as government websites, citizens monitor the status of processing their suggestions and the process of deciding the best idea/solution.


The Role of Embedded Transparency

Consequently, embedded transparency in collaborative governance is “the action of creating active and multi-directional interactions between government and citizens to improve the quality of government decisions.” Embedded transparency plays two distinct roles in facilitating effective collaboration.

First, transparency helps generate a “shared context” around a policy problem between government and citizens. A shared context allows participants in collaborative efforts to approach a certain policy problem in a similar way or within a similar frame. Through dynamic communication, government and citizens can see and understand the situation in which they are involved together, beyond just focusing on their own situation. Consequently, the shared context enables the participants to build more feasible solutions within a common knowledge and understanding.

Second, transparency provides citizens with a real influence on public policies. Citizens not only participate in solution-building, having their preferences and perspectives integrated into public decisions, but also track how government has dealt with their suggestions through real policy. Such public scrutiny enables the public to feel its ability to influence a policy decision; it’s political efficacy. In Participation and Democratic theory, Pateman argues for political efficacy as stimulus to encourage citizen participation on the regular basis.


Seoul City’s Oasis

As local governments increasingly support the use of a variety of information and communication technologies (ICT), the possibility of realizing the model of embedded transparency increases.

Seoul City’s Oasis in South Korea and provides a good example of this potential. The Oasis system of Seoul City is an open and interacting system that serves as a channel to encourage citizen participation in decision-making. Anytime and anywhere, Seoul citizens can participate in open discussions with local government officials via the Oasis website and mobile applications, integrate ideas into policies through a brainstorming process and monitor the result of their suggestions. Also, the real time feedback by public officials to questions posed by citizens can effectively address their concerns in a timely manner.

Although the Open Government Initiative advances technology as a medium of endless knowledge, its capacity is limited in creating the conditions to facilitate embedded transparency. Embedded transparency is premised on the active participation of citizens and free exchange of information among participants involved in collaborative governance. Cultivating such conditions includes creating a new relationship between government and citizens and changing the culture of governance. If so, what is the way to foster an active mindset of government officials as well as citizens for collaborative governance? What is the proper pathway of transparency toward the full realization of collaborative governance?



Jusil Lee, Ph.D. Student, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University (e-mail) [email protected]

Erik W. Johnston, Associate Professor, Director of the Center for Policy Informatics, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University (e-mail) [email protected]


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