Beyond Transparency to Open Accountability

Beyond Transparency to Open Accountability

By Liza Massey, CIO, County of Marin Department of Information Services and Technology

Liza Massey, CIO, County of Marin Department of Information Services and Technology

Do an Internet search for “open data portal” and you will find a wealth of information and links to local, state, and federal government open data sites. Many of these sites describe their open data efforts in terms of accessibility and transparency, which is a giant step in the right direction. Open data, by definition, is data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone. To make it more useful, sites encourage using the data for purposes beyond research, such as developing web and mobile applications and designing data visualizations. While some sites mention accountability, I am often left wondering to whom? To what standards? With what process or tools? Data transparency and accessibility do not equal accountability, especially when the amount of online data is growing exponentially.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Access to a large amount of data sounds like a good thing, but the Internet is full of data, with 90% added in the last two years, according to some studies. The internet now has over two billion active websites and that number is growing too. Case in point, my search for “open data portal” returned 250 million results! People are inundated with data to the point that articles are being written about how to avoid being overwhelmed by it. One of the largest U.S. government open data portals I found is, the federal government’s portal that provides access to over 240,000 datasets, with more being added all the time. In addition to its own datasets, this site aggregates datasets from many sources including cities, counties, and states. While topical organization of data by subjects such as public safety, environment, budget, etc. helps, the data consumer is often left to figure out how to use the data to hold agencies accountable.

"Like many organizations, Marin County launched an open data portal that began with a handful of datasets. In less than two years, it has grown to over 100 public assets – datasets, measures, stories, maps, and visualizations"

Marin County’s Open Data Journey

Like many organizations, Marin County launched an open data portal that began with a handful of datasets. In less than two years, it has grown to over 100 public assets – datasets, measures, stories, maps, and visualizations. Three times that amount are in development, with many more in the planning stage. Last year, Marin County took the next step in open data and launched Compass, an aptly named organizational performance program that uses data to orient us in what we are doing today and navigate us toward a future of continuous improvement. Compass builds upon our existing data and open data portal tools. It uses datasets, analytics, automated data flows, dashboards, and other web tools to move from static organizational performance management reporting to live dashboards that accurately speak to County, department, and cross-departmental program performance.

Data Driven Accountability

Unlike many open data portals, the purpose of Compass is to develop the right strategies to measure the right performance indicators and share them online to promote accountability to the public. Compass uses input from the community and employees to develop internal and external departmental and multi-departmental goals around the Marin County Board of Supervisors’ top three priorities - safe, healthy, and sustainable communities. The data supports performance measurements and reporting about internal operations as well as community indicators. Development of the program was a collaborative effort that included employees from across the organization and community members. The working group even chose the program name, designed the logo, and developed interactive, online templates to guide departments through the Compass implementation process.

Data as a Means to an End

The mission of Compass is to ensure the effective collection and use of data to support continuous improvement for the County. By identifying data as a means to an end, not the end itself, this mission statement clearly defines the expected outcome - continuous improvement. The collaborative development process coupled with executive leadership support provided the framework for a successful program launch. Adoption by the Board of Supervisors gave Compass visibility and credibility. Training, templates, marketing, and pilot projects with early successes resulted in organizational acceptance and support. Launching the program was only the beginning though. Intentional actions are being taken to integrate Compass into the County’s culture and business processes, beginning with budget development. To ensure data integrity and quality, a Data Governance Team was formed to develop and oversee governance policies and procedures, as well as privacy and security standards and practices. Ongoing status reporting by each department to appointed and elected leadership ensures a high level of participation and accountability. Continuous public outreach, such as our recent residential survey, keeps the County’s priorities and measures in alignment with what our community deems important.

Open Accountability

The County Administrator described open accountability in a recent countywide email message. “Compass encourages a culture of continuous improvement and measures how well departments are achieving their goals and objectives while factoring in community and employee input. As a steward of public resources, the County is bringing together top administrators, employees, and the community to measure progress towards a shared vision.” By using open data to tackle tough issues in our community, while ensuring that we are addressing the things that matter most to our residents, Marin County is transparent, accessible, and accountable.

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