As academic researchers point out, we don’t yet have a great deal of long-term, valid data for many of the experiments in this area to weigh civic outcomes and the overall advance of democracy. Anecdotally, though, it seems that more problems — from potholes to corruption — are being surfaced, enabling greater accountability. This “new fuel” of data also creates opportunities for businesses and organizations; and so-called “Big Data” projects frequently rely on large government datasets, as do “news apps.”
But are there other logical limits to open government in the digital age? If so, what are the rationales for these limits? And what are the latest academic insights in this area?
Most open-records laws, including the federal Freedom of Information Act, still provide exceptions that allow public institutions to guard information that might interfere with pending legal proceedings or jeopardize national security. In addition, the internal decision-making and deliberation processes of government agencies as well as documents related to personnel matters are frequently off limits. These exceptions remain largely untouched in the digital age (notwithstanding extralegal actions by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, or confidential sources who disclose things to the press). At a practical level, experts say that the functioning of FOIA laws is still uneven, and some states continue to threaten rollbacks.
Limits of transparency?
A key moment in the rethinking of openness came in 2009, when Harvard University legal scholar Lawrence Lessig published an essay in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” In it, Lessig — a well-known advocate for greater access to information and knowledge of many kinds — warned that transparency in and of itself could lead to diminished trust in government and must be tied to policies that can also rebuild public confidence in democratic institutions.
In recent years, more political groups have begun leveraging open records laws as a kind of tool to go after opponents, a phenomenon that has even touched the public university community, which is typically subject to disclosure laws….
If there is a tension between transparency and public trust, there is also an uneasy balance between government accountability and privacy. A 2013 paper in the American Review of Public Administration, “Public Pay Disclosure in State Government: An Ethical Analysis,” examines a standard question of disclosure faced in every state: How much should even low-level public servants be subject to personal scrutiny about their salaries? The researchers, James S. Bowman and Kelly A. Stevens of Florida State University, evaluate issues of transparency based on three competing values: rules (justice or fairness), results (what does the greatest good), and virtue (promoting integrity.)…”