Individual Incentives for Transparent Data

There are many group incentives for having more open, participatory, and collaborative work environments.  In private business, powerful leaders can impose new information-sharing systems, with the primary group incentive being increased revenue.  What’s the individual incentive for an individual in this situation?  If there is one, it’s often some kind of profit-sharing, a chance for more rapid promotion, or similar.

Academic information-sharing needs different incentives, because professors don’t directly profit from research, and there’s generally nothing to be promoted to.  Rapidly sharing raw experimental data with the world offers advantages to the community of medical researchers searching for disease genes.  But there is a counterbalancing advantage to cheating and withholding data to make it proprietary to a certain laboratory and a small cabal of collaborators.  What’s the incentive for an individual professor or laboratory director to share data?  In this case, with genome sequencing and expression data for instance, the community decided that sharing would be a prerequisite for publication (the lifeblood of academia) – so everyone complies.

What about transparent, open sharing of government data?  There are at least three parallel issues here: sharing within government, between government and contractors, and between government and the people.  David Stephenson organized a thought-provoking discussion about group-level incentives for sharing government information at the recent Transparency Camp in Washington, D.C.  But individual-level incentives were hardly discussed.

What’s the incentive for an individual government employee to make the effort to change the status quo, if they’re not currently a “transparent government cheerleader“?  I don’t have an answer to this question.  But finding that answer requires a fresh look at the human resources of the government – How are they recruited, trained, incentivized, compensated, and retained, and how does this influence their day-to-day work? People do not always do what’s best for the group.

Technical problems with open, transparent, and participatory government have recently been highlighted in the mainstream press. But from a holistic standpoint, this is far more than a technology problem.

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This post was written by:

Mark Drapeau - who has written 225 posts on Dr. Mark D. Drapeau.

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7 Comments For This Post

  1. Dan Bevarly Says:

    True. It is a communication problem using technology to solve it.

    Bloated bureaucracy, not to be confused with inherent bureaucracy, has permeated government. The public sector will not make up its deficits through increasing revenue. It must find ways to cut costs without decreasing the effectiveness of programs and services. However, when agency administrators are required to take the same X% cut across the board, efficient and effective programs and services are lumped into those that are not and can receive the same fate.

    Government employees are the most knowledgeable and equipped people to identify and recommend where changes are needed. Yet, which steward of the taxpayers’ dollars wants to be the first to say “my job, program or even my department isn’t effective or even necessary?”

  2. Justin Thorp Says:

    So… let’s say that you get incentives right for the government to be more transparent. How are you going to incentivize it so that American people want to participate? I think we need to get into our schools and start re-emphasizing national pride and participation.

  3. Mark Drapeau Says:

    Justin, I don’t entirely disagree, but I don’t think citizens are the main roadblock. People who really want something from their government usually find a way to ask. But many people who could be doing more within government don’t feel any sense of urgency, nor do they see how it will help them in their own life/career.

  4. Ken Fischer Says:

    Another related issue in government is what is the incentive for collaboration within and between agencies as well as with the public. I think Justin has a point that education is one issue. It also seems with transparency and other types of collaborative participation they need to be able to be tracked to the source by management in order to deliver whatever the incentive is. Though this has the danger of shutting down contribution because of fear you might be held accountable for an outcome which you are only part of and made a small contribution to.

  5. debra louison-lavoy Says:

    IMO, there are 2 key barriers to real transparency and collab within the government. Technology and Culture.
    1. People will adopt a tool when its easier to use than not to. Full stop. so pulling aging IT horror shows up to modern usability standards will help a lot. Very few people who’ve ever tried modern wikis, forums, and other well designed collaboration tools are not finding them more useful than email, project and whatever for multi-point communication and organization.

    2. Culture. The norm is management by fear. Horde info, never show what you don’t know. Getting into the groove of a collaborative culture – shared goals, mutual respect and trust – enables the debate and dialog that finds and solves problems, keeps people focused and makes it worth trying.

    These problems are tricky, but solvable.

  6. Joe Flood Says:

    It’s a draconian solution but perhaps write into government employees’ performance plans that they have to share information. Perhaps they can get bonuses if they figure out new ways to share data with the public. Or compensation can be tied to the amount of data shared and remixed.

  7. debra louison-lavoy Says:

    Sharing can’t really be enforced. I can force you to login, I can force you to make a certain number of entries, but I cannot make you share your thoughts. What I can do is make it desirable to do so by giving you great tools, and creating a culture that values sharing over info hording, is goal oriented, rather than status oriented.

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