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Does transparency hobble effective governance?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A remarkable debate on transparency and open government took place on March 15, 2016 at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, Missouri, USA.  The issue was: Is American Government too open? Professor Bruce E. Cain of Stanford University argued that “Yes, American Government Is Too Open”, and Professor Charles Lewis of American University, Washington DC, argued that “No, American Government is Not Too Open”. You can watch the debate here.

It is a rich and illuminating exchange, and one that the two professors somehow manage to keep civil. I watched the debate online but in what follows I draw from the written commentary submitted by both professors, and I try to focus on the universally applicable points that each one made.

I begin with my summation of the case for transparency and openness, as argued by Professor Lewis:

  1. The foundation is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which established the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. In the USA, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) became law in 1966 and has been amended many times.
  2. FOIA cannot be regarded as excessive because many parts of government and many activities of government are not covered. Exemptions abound.
  3. Secrecy and “institutional lying’” are still, sadly, rampant. Entire departments of state commit to a lie and protect it.
  4. The fact that these days governments outsource many activities to corporations has had the effect of inhibiting transparency. These corporations do not feel obliged to disclose what they are doing on behalf of government.
  5. PR hacks (the infamous spin doctors) now outnumber journalists four to one. In other words, the number of people committed to getting the truth out to the public are now greatly outnumbered by those committed to advocacy, persuasion, the manipulation of public opinion, and so on.
Next is my summation of the case for the limits of transparency and openness as argued by Professor Cain:
  1. A “baseline level of transparency” is needed. The problem is with sunshine laws, or the push for ever greater transparency.
  2. The point is that the laws that force public decision making into the open often do not strike the right balance between making government effective and holding government accountable. When officials have to deliberate in the open (say with television cameras in the chamber) posturing replaces frank and open discussion.
  3. “Being watched drives real political conversation underground. The inside story usually comes in deep background leaks by inside sources, not from press conferences, hearings, or debates on the floor”.
  4. Public decision making does not really engage the interest of the average citizen. Vested interests of all kinds are the ones who exploit public decision making. Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) groups, for instance, are particularly adept at using public decision making in order to advance their particular interests.
  5. Freedom of Information laws are a bonanza for political consultants conducting ‘opposition research’ on their opponents.  A globally resonant example: “Over the two years before the 2016 presidential election, the Republican National Committee’s opposition researchers made more than 330 FOIA requests for over 11,000 pages of public records concerning the Clintons at taxpayer’s expense.”
  6. “More transparency and openness is not always the answer to our governance problems. We need more deliberation, compromise, and consensus…A democracy that works for the people needs to be able to make effective decisions without undue special interest pressures and incentives to grandstand. That sometimes means providing shade from the glare of excessive transparency.”
Those are the two views…as I understand them. So, the issue, in my view, is not whether or not you need freedom of information laws or sunshine laws. They are powerful tools.  The point is to be aware of the tradeoffs involved as activists push for ever greater transparency, and to ask: Can we do this and still have effective governance? The judgment calls involved are ticklish challenges that each democratic society will have to resolve according to its own political culture and laws of motion.

Naturally, the autocracies are not even part of this picture. In the main, in matters of open governance they are busy motoring right back to the Dark Ages. 

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Submitted by Narayan Manandhar on

In the name of transparency obviously it is no good to take out your undergarments.

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