Building a Culture of Transparency

150 150 Robb Korinke

When California Forward asked Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom how the state can inject Sacramento’s institutional culture with the same values that have enabled San Francisco’s government to lead the open data movement, he referred to the private sector’s entrepreneurial, bottom-up mindset of governing. “The most successful businesses in the world have one thing in common: they have failed more often than their competitors, but in a protected environment where they learn from their mistakes and through that process move forward with the benefit of that knowledge,” Newsom explained, “but they were moving, constantly. They weren’t waiting around. They were moving, they were leaning and fell forward fast and I think that mindset needs to exist in government.” It is essential that government agencies begin to tailor unique solutions to the problems they face and adopt a “bottom-up, peer to peer collaborative frame instead of the old industrial model which is no longer relevant.”

So how do governments promote and cultivate a culture of transparency that goes beyond the minimum standards enacted by law?

Changes in technology, variations in record keeping procedures across government agencies and a lack of resources make it difficult for state legislators and other regulatory bodies to respond effectively to the constantly changing flow of information between government and the people.

David Eaves, a Vancouver-based public policy entrepreneur who also acts as an adviser to open government initiatives here in the United States argues, “the truth is that openness, transparency and accountability cannot be created by the adoption of new codes or rules alone. This is because even more than programs and regulations, an open government is the result of culture, norms and leadership.”

He explains that rules can never fully serve our transparency needs and as a result, it is necessary that government leaders think not only about rules that will foster a more open and accountable government but about the type of leadership and culture that will support the intent of those rules. Moreover, by fostering a culture that supports open government, state and local agencies are better equipped to move from simple compliance with the law and into a more productive, valuable implementation of transparency practices throughout their organizations.

The matter of culture becomes ever more important when one considers that relying solely on rules and regulation as a means for achieving transparency also requires reliance on a system of command and control—which at its core, can stand in contradiction with what government transparency truly seeks to promote—a more informed, participatory and democratic form of government. Even when there is a faithful effort on behalf of local governments, special districts and state agencies to comply with transparency laws, these same reasons often make it challenging for them to do so.

Private Sector Know-How, Public Sector Innovation

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine convened a team of 14 CEOs and asked about factors they believe have proved instrumental in propelling their organizations towards success.  Among the various answers given, the most common response was related to creating open cultures of accountability. The CEOs cited specific strategies such as providing forums in which every employee contributes, shares and receives direct feedback and sharing information that was traditionally only shared with the Board of Directors with the entire company in order to ensure that every employee knew exactly what was going on.  They cited de-mystifying certain processes so as to foster a culture of understanding and comfort as well as instituting practices for more collaborative decision-making.

San Francisco however is not the only California government agency that has figured this out. When everyone knows what everyone is working on and getting done, a culture of transparency becomes a huge competitive advantage for an organization.  For the Port of Oakland, having a culture deeply rooted in honesty, integrity, collaboration and innovation is so essential to its ability to remain competitive in a worldwide market, that they have made the objective of fostering a culture of transparency one of their main goals in their FY 2011-2015 Strategic Plan.  

In their most recent update to stakeholders regarding their progress in building a “culture of transparency,” the Port of Oakland identifies the following steps the agency must continue to take in order to achieve its objective: a) Accelerating culture change b) Setting a new “tone at the top” and c) Rebuilding Public Trust.  They then go on to a list a series of changes that will be made to various policies and practices, including training for their leadership team, ethics training for employees and the incorporation of more inclusive and collaborative approaches to working with stakeholder groups.

At the local level, the California Special District Association (CSDA) has taken a slightly different approach towards fostering a culture of transparency.  Rather than revise policies, in partnership with the Special Districts Leadership Foundation, CSDA has created a new certification program that empowers and incentivizes their member agencies to implement more transparent practices and to do so in ways that enable them to simultaneously meet their own objectives. 

The certification program, created as an effort to promote transparency in the operations and governance of special districts, is unique because it moves transparency from a mandatory requirement and redefines it as a value necessary to an organization’s overall performance. Additionally, it enables the organization to demonstrate their commitment to improving transparency to their employees, stakeholders as well as members of the public.

In order for a California special district to earn certification, the organization must demonstrate a certain level of transparency in three key areas.  The first area relates to Basic Transparency Requirements that special districts must comply with, include ethics training for Board members, compliance with the Brown Act, disclosure requirements and also prompts them to revisit certain policies. 

The second area relates to information made available on a special district’s website and recommends a list of items that must be included on the website as well as a list of items that special districts can choose to implement.  To meet this area’s requirements, a special district must achieve all of the mandatory requirements presented in the former list and meet at least four of the requirements on the optional list.

Finally, the third area and perhaps most important, relates to outreach and other best practices for transparency. In this area, a special district must meet at least two of the requirements provide from the list of several requirements, that include the options of implementing a community newsletter to ensure timely information to the public on key items, annual budget hearings, and the implementation of a community engagement project.

By giving special districts options in how they meet the requirements presented within each area, the program empowers them and gives them the freedom to get creative about how they can advance transparency given their individual strengths, constraints, and objectives.

If a special district exhibits excellence in all three of these areas, they are granted certification.  In return, they receive a certificate that they can keep in their office as well as a window cling of the certificate to be used as a physical display of their commitment to transparency.  They also receive a press release template, recognition on the Special District Leadership Foundation website, recognition in the California Special District magazine and other collateral materials that can be used to continue to demonstrate their dedication to conducting business as openly and transparently as possible. The best part is that participating in the Special District Certificate program is free! And those districts that meet all requirements receive certification for a full two years.

To date, close to 10 special districts have been awarded a certificate of excellence in transparency, with the Contra Costa Water District leading the charge. 

CA Fwd applauds the efforts made on behalf of the Port of Oakland, the California Special District Association, the Special District Leadership Foundation and other agencies working hard to foster a culture that promotes and values transparent government. 


Robb Korinke

All stories by: Robb Korinke