It's the Process, Stupid

It's the Process, Stupid

The tools exist, so now's the time for transparent government.

By the time you read this, the US election will be over. No matter who won, I've got one thing to say: Democracy without easy access to reliable information about government processes and key performance indicators (KPIs) is a farce.

Voters and politicians alike have a huge transparency problem, where processes are opaque and key indicators are buried in comma-delimited files and PDFs. The situation cries out for business process management (BPM) and business activity monitoring (BAM). Both of these technologies can work even when you don't have the money to rip and replace old systems - which we don't.

The government churns such vast amounts of money and information. Shouldn't people who work in government and their constituents be able to view simple, Web-based process models and dashboards to see what's going on? If you don't make it mandatory to open up government with such technology, is there any other effective way to guard against the influence of special interests?

Take taxes as an example. It took David Cay Johnston, author of a superb book titled Perfectly Legal , nearly a decade to decipher the US tax system. In the course of writing that book, he discovered that only a handful of people in Congress really understood the tax code. He also found countless loopholes, many of them traceable to special interests.

Wouldn't it be instructive if you could watch the dollars draining through those loopholes and see who was responsible for the laws that created them? But perhaps that's why we don't have the tools we need.

Here's another favourite. According to the Department of Defence's Office of the Inspector General, more than a trillion dollars has gone missing from the Pentagon. Some observers believe that the number may be several times larger. But no one knows for sure, because the Pentagon has no auditable accounting system. Now, I understand that parts of the Pentagon budget need to be kept secret, but contractors have more accurate data about where the money goes than the Pentagon itself.

Holy Sarbox! With all due sensitivity to national security (and the job security of generals pushing weapons systems that will never work properly), I would like to learn more about what happens to half my federal tax dollars. What incentive do the Defence Department and its contractors have to clean up their acts if there's no public visibility?

This isn't just about playing gotcha. There's an open-source aspect as well. With open source, the whole idea is that anyone can come along and fix or improve things. I'm not suggesting this would become a popular hobby. But what if ordinary citizens, not just wonks in watchdog groups, were looking at all sorts of big, messy government processes through their browsers and suggesting improvements? And what if politicians were forced to fess up to which special interests urged them to put the twists and exceptions in processes that should be straightforward?

Truth is, some of these systems are already in place. contractors develop and maintain process management and control solutions for a range of government organizations right now. But they're mainly closed, expensive, proprietary systems. There are also a handful of BPM pureplays - including Appian, Handysoft and Metastorm - that have both government solutions and a commitment to open standards. The more open the software, the better chance we'll have of seeing what's happening over HTTP one day.

I'm not being naive here. Shining a light on government processes will require enormous public pressure. And converting reams of unintelligible data into Web-ready models and dynamic charts won't guarantee interest by the public. But at least the processes and what flows through them will be observable. And over time, they'll become a part of the culture.

Eric Knorr is executive editor at large at InfoWorld

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