Why Open Government Is Good for Politicians (and Their Careers)

A new Pew research poll shows that transparency leads to happier citizens.

As governmental distrust reaches record levels, incumbents should be racing for more open government. According to a Pew research poll released yesterday, citizens are far happier with their local government in areas with more accessible government information. And yet, groaning reports from Capitol Hill reveal politicians' reluctance about transparency, especially social media.

Instead of seeing open government as a chore, they might be wise to think about it as strategic campaign move. In a three-city study that included Silicon Valley, Pew found that "if people believe their local government shares information well, they also feel good about their town and its civic institutions." The report continues, "Those who are avid information consumers from news media and online sources are more likely to be involved and feel they have impact."

Citizens who felt the government did a "very" or "pretty" good job of sharing information were three times more likely (38%) to be satisfied with city government.  Despite this evidence, Politico recently reported that many on Capitol Hill have a less-than-friendly relationship with social media. "Social media is absolutely a pain in the a—," complained a Capitol Hill aid. "But that’s the nature of our business."

Politico continues:

"One staffer says she spends an average of an hour and 30 minutes of her day trolling her member of Congress’s social sites, deleting obscenities, moderating inner-commenter squabbles and posting responses to random questions pointing her to hyperlinks throughout the great Internet abyss."

That hasn't stopped some people and places from making headway in the open government space. San Francisco is crowdsourcing wastful spending alerts, the House Republicans mandated that all bills be put online 72 hours prior to a vote, and New York has a sophisticated open-source bill tracking platform

Yet, states that permit open access are by far the exception. A look at the Sunlight Foundation's map of states with open-data policies shows that only a handful of states, mostly around the coasts, are either experimenting (green) or transparent-ready (blue).

 

As the 2012 horse race gears up with billions in funding in the balance and a captivated 24-hour media cycle, savvy political parties would be wise to focus some of that limitless energy on transparency, a strategic move for both themselves and the country.

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