Why government agencies should make transparency a priority


More and more often, agencies at every level of government are being asked to increase transparency. Constituents have a right to know how public affairs are being conducted, as well as how tax dollars are being spent. While this is not a new concept, there are still challenges arising from the rapidly growing records to manage and requests for information received.

The importance of transparency

Government agencies are meant to serve the people. To do that effectively, agencies are obligated to share information with the public. Transparency is essential for building public trust, so much so that it’s engrained in some constitutional laws, such as the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). By being open and honest, elected officials are held accountable by the public to make decisions with integrity and to keep the community’s best interests in mind.

Troublingly, trust in government has been falling in recent years. A study published in 2019 by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans view the public’s confidence in the government as well as each other is shrinking, making it harder to solve key problems of the nation. In addition, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that there was a decline across several nations, indicating that this is a worldwide issue. In such a climate, it’s even more important for agencies to display transparency to demonstrate integrity and build the public’s confidence in the government.

When word is law

Beyond its benefit of supporting good governance, transparency is also required by law in various ways. The FOIA, for instance, allows the public to request government-held information. It’s seen as a way to ensure informed citizens, which is considered vital to a functioning democratic society.

There has even been movement towards a more transparent government, as the FOIA Improvement Act passed in 2016, which sought to improve FOIA processes, included requirements to disclose documents and records in electronic formats. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) of 2014 was a big step towards transparency in government spending, increasing the availability and accuracy around financial reporting.

The proof is in the pudding

Evidently, transparency is being called for from all sides – from the public as well as from higher regulatory bodies. Some governments are working towards making it faster, easier, and less costly to request government information. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that there were dramatic improvements in 2015 regarding how much information was provided online.

However, as with most things, increasing transparency is easier said than done. Access to public records is often delayed due to bottlenecks, legacy systems, and budget. Considering 2018’s record high of 863,729 FOIA requests, the backlog will only keep growing if the underlying process is not made more efficient. With constant technological improvements this does not have to be the case. There are new tools available to make it easier to manage the thousands of documents that governments handle, which is not only useful but expected in the digital age.

Since this initiative pertains to accessing digital documents, an essential first step is to make the processes surrounding that as efficient as possible. One way to do so is using file compression to reduce file size by up to 50%, which makes it much quicker to access documents. Implementing an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to transform scanned documents to fully text-searchable documents can also dramatically reduce the amount of time needed to look for information. By making it easier to handle records, agencies can share information more readily, setting them on the road to more transparency, more accountability, and an overall more trusting relationship with the public.

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