A recent policy paper by Frank Bannister and Regina Connolly asks whether transparency is an unalloyed good in e-government. As the authors point out, the advent of Wikileaks has brought the issue of “e-transparency” into the domain of public debate. Broadly, e-transparency in government refers to access to the data, processes, decisions and actions of governments mediated by information communications technology (ICT).
Debates about the extent to which governments should (or can) be transparent have a lengthy history. The prospect of e-transparency adds considerations of affordability and potential breadth of citizen response and participation. Bannister and Connolly begin their discussion by setting aside the most common objections to transparency: Clear requirements for national security and commercial confidentiality in the service of protecting citizenry or other national interests. What other reasonable objections to transparency, let alone e-transparency, might there be?
Traditional arguments for transparency in government are predicated on three values assertions.
- The public has a right to know. Elected office-holders and appointed public or civil servants alike are accountable to their constituencies. Accountability is impossible without transparency; therefore good government requires transparency.
- Good government requires building trust between the governors and the governed, which can only arise if the governors are accountable to the governed.
- Effective citizen participation in a democracy is possible only if the citizenry is sufficiently educated and informed to make good decisions. Education and information both entail transparency.
Indeed, you can find affirmations of these assertions in the Obama administration’s White House Press Office statement on this issue.
Note that the first of these arguments is a claim to a right, whereas the second and third are claims about consequences. The distinction is important. A right is, by definition, non-negotiable and, in principle, inalienable. Arguments for good consequences, on the other hand, are utilitarian instead of deontological. Utilitarian arguments can be countered by “greater good” arguments and therefore are negotiable.
Japanese official pronouncements about the state of the recent Fukujima plant disaster therefore were expected to be more or less instantaneous and accurate. Even commentary from sources such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists averred that official reports should have been forthcoming sooner about the magnitude and scope of the disaster: “Denied such transparency, media outlets and the public may come to distrust official statements.” The gist of this commentary was that transparency would pay off better than secrecy, and the primary payoff would be increased trust in the Japanese government.
However, there are counter-arguments to the belief that transparency is a necessary or even contributing factor in building trust in government. A recent study by Stephan Gimmelikhuikjsen (2010) suggests that when the minutes of local council deliberations were made available online citizens’ evaluations of council competence declined in comparison to citizens who did not have access to that information. If transparency reveals incompetency then it may not increase trust after all. This finding is congruent with observations that a total accountability culture often also is a blame culture.
There’s another more subtle issue, namely that insistence on accountability and the surveillance levels required thereby are incompatible with trust relations. People who trust one another do not place each other under 24-7 surveillance, nor do they hold them accountable for every action or decision. Trust may be built up via surveillance and accountability, but once it has been established then the social norms around trust relations sit somewhat awkwardly alongside norms regarding transparency. The latter are more compatible with contractual relations than trust relations.
Traditional arguments against transparency (or at least, in favour of limiting transparency) also come in deontological and utilitarian flavors. The right of public servants and even politicians to personal privacy stands against the right of the public to know: One deontological principle versus another. ICT developments have provided new tools to monitor in increasing detail what workers do and how they do it, but as yet there seem to be few well thought-out guidelines for how far the public (or anyone else) should be permitted to go in monitoring government employees or office-holders.
Then there are the costs and risks of disclosure, which these days include exposure to litigation and the potential for data to be hacked. E-transparency is said to cost considerably less than traditional transparency and can deliver much greater volumes of data. Nonetheless, Bannister and Connolly caution that some cost increases can occur, firstly in the formalization, recording and editing of what previously were informal and unrecorded processes or events and secondly in the maintenance and updating of data-bases. The advent of radio and television shortened the expected time for news to reach the public and expanded the expected proportion of the public who would receive the news. ICT developments have boosted both of these expectations enormously.
Even if the lower cost argument is true, lower costs and increased capabilities also bring new problems and risks. Chief among these, according to Bannister and Connolly, are misinterpretation and misuse of data, and inadvertent enablement of misuses. On the one hand, ICT has provided the public with tools to process and analyse information that were unavailable to the radio and TV generations. On the other hand, data seldom speak for themselves, and what they have to say depends crucially on how they are selected and analyzed. Bannister and Connolly mentioned school league tables as a case in point. For a tongue-in-cheek example of the kind of simplistic analyses Bannister and Connolly fear, look no further than Crikey’s treatment of data on the newly-fledged Australian My School website.
Here’s another anti-transparency argument, not considered by Bannister and Connolly, grounded in a solid democratic tradition: The secret ballot. Secret ballots stifle vote-buying because the buyer cannot be sure of whom their target voted for. This argument has been extended (see, for instance, the relevant Freakonomics post) to defend secrecy regarding campaign contributions. Anonymous donations deter influence-peddling, so the argument runs, because candidates can’t be sure the supposed contributors actually contributed. It would not be difficult to generalize it further to include voting by office-holders on crucial bills, or certain kinds of decisions. There are obvious objections to this argument, but it also has some appeal. After all, there is plenty of vote-buying and influence-peddling purveyed by lobby groups outfitted and provisioned for just such undertakings.
Finally, there is a transparency bugbear known to any wise manager who has tried to implement systems to make their underlings accountable—Gaming the system. Critics of school league tables claim they motivate teachers to tailor curricula to the tests or even indulge in outright cheating (there are numerous instances of the latter, here and here for a couple of recent examples). Nor is this limited to underling-boss relations. You can find it in any competitive market. Last year Eliot Van Buskirk posted an intriguing piece on how marketers are gaming social media in terms of artificially inflated metrics such as number of friends or YouTube views.
In my 1989 book, I pointed out that information has come to resemble hard currency, and the “information society” is also an increasingly regulated, litigious society. This combination motivates those under surveillance, evaluation, or accountability regimes to distort or simply omit potentially discrediting information. Bannister and Connolly point to the emergence of a “non-recording” culture in public service: “Where public servants are concerned about the impact of data release, one solution is to not create or record the data in the first place.” To paraphrase the conclusion I came to in 1989, the new dilemma is that the control strategies designed to enhance transparency may actually increase intentional opacity.
I should close by mentioning that I favor transparency. My purpose in this post has been to point out some aspects of the arguments for and against it that need further thought, especially in this time of e-everything.