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2008-06-17

Transparency Causes Performance?

[update 2008-06-18T15:22Z There are an unusual number of broken phrases and mangled sentences, even for me, and I must repair them.  This reflects the haste with which I completed this post.]

Some Visible Goodness of Transparency

Michael Krigsman, of ZDNet IT Project Failures, recently posted "Miracles Happen: A Transparent Government Dashboard."  Since this is my home State, I am intrigued by the transparent operation of the Washington Transportation Improvement Board.  The clearly self-promoting overview also hints at the apparent connection between going public and making measurable performance visible and understandable.

This has me wonder about the extent to which transparency causes performance.  I suspect there is some dynamic between willingness to be transparent and to perform and having the incentive that being transparent provides to performance.  My hunch is that the transparency has a positive impact provided that the there is a relentless commitment to not allowing the activity to retreat into darkness.  It appears, in the Washington TIB case, that there is a clear quality-of-results improvement and along with a cycle of increasing trustworthiness that arises as well. 

The application of dashboards to support transparency is showing remarkable results with regard to public works, especially road projects (funded by this state's 3% hit on gasoline sales).  This appears to work very well with regard to governance but there are applications in other areas, as reflected in other uses of graphics for communication on matters where public policies and open government are factors.  Although the Washington TIB effort is the most visible, the State of Washington Governor is requiring all other executive agencies to also provide this form of public accountability.  The sessions of the executive in which these initiatives are analyzed and feedback gathered are open to the public and the press as well.

Although this visibility is on management and governance, I think it also demonstrates that public works failures are generally not engineering ones.  The ones that are (the bridge or aircraft falls down) are recognized as such.  And it is the transparency and accountability of engineering conduct that allows the failure to be understood and avoided in the future. 

Helping Each Other Stay Visible

On a related topic, Jeff Atwood has posted "Don't Go Dark."  I find this similar to the transparency situation in that going dark signals some deviation of attention, performance, or focus that is ultimately destructive.  (Meanwhile, I have thoroughly gone dark on two of my public projects and must make repairs.)  What is valuable in the case that Atwood features is the introduction of a team practice that does not allow a team member to go dark.  (This is also related to flipping the bozo bit rather than working through the human dynamics to empower team-mates.)  Atwood suspects that the problem is not as much about perfectionism as it is about fear of embarrassment.  This would seem to be the behavior in many public agencies, including avoidance of criticism and being second-guessed.

Atwood points out that going dark is extremely easy to do on open-source projects, and it can obviously be a major stumbling block for those of us conducting solo nano-development operations.  It seems that what calls us forth the best is having someone care how we are doing, and caring that someone cares.  Hmm, so we can empower trustworthiness?  That's an interesting thought.  I wonder what form empowering actions might take.

And Visible Interoperability?

My attention is on interoperability these days.  It is natural for me to wonder how transparency fits in the creation of interoperability arrangements and the development of standards that support interoperability.  I suspect that development of open, public standards could benefit from earlier transparency and public review.  We now have technology that makes wide discussion and visible tracking not so difficult to accomplish.

In discussing this just now with my colleague, Bill Anderson, Bill makes an important point about measurability.  It might be important to have explicit measures and to account for them publicly.  I think that is the case, at least in terms of measuring how well one conforms to a standard and also how well a product achieves or preserves or moves toward some particular level of interoperability.  It would be great to see concrete measures on these qualities and have transparency on their achievement and confirmation.

I suppose one could even have interoperability dashboards.  The Government Management, Accountability, and Performance (GMAP) dashboards all work because there are measures.

 
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