Why transparency can be a dirty word

Francis Fukuyama in the Financial Times: “It is hard to think of a political good that is more universally praised than government transparency. Whereas secrecy shelters corruption, abuse of power, undue influence and a host of other evils, transparency allows citizens to keep their rulers accountable. Or that is the theory.

It is clear that there are vast areas in which modern governments should reveal more. Edward Snowden’s revelations of eavesdropping by the National Security Agency has encouraged belief that the US government has been not nearly transparent enough. But is it possible to have too much transparency? The answer is clearly yes: demands for certain kinds of transparency have hurt government effectiveness, particularly with regard to its ability to deliberate.

The US has a number of statutes mandating transparency passed decades ago in response to perceived government abuses, and motivated by perfectly reasonable expectations that the government should operate under greater scrutiny. Yet they have had a number of unfortunate consequences.

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, for example, places onerous requirements on any public agency seeking to consult a group outside the government, requiring that they are formally approved and meet various criteria for political balance. Meetings must be held in public. The Government in the Sunshine Act stipulates that, with certain exceptions, “every portion of every meeting of an agency shall be open to public observation”.

These obligations put a serious damper on informal consultations with citizens, and even make it difficult for officials to talk to one another. Deliberation, whether in the context of a family or a federal agency, require people to pose hypotheticals and, when trying to reach agreement, make concessions.

When the process itself is open to public scrutiny, officials fear being hounded for a word taken out of context. They resort to cumbersome methods of circumventing the regulations, such as having one-on-one discussions so as not to trigger a group rule, or having subordinates do all the serious work.

The problem with the Freedom of Information Act is different. It was meant to serve investigative journalists looking into abuses of power. But today a large number of FOIA requests are filed by corporate sleuths trying to ferret out secrets for competitive advantage, or simply by individuals curious to find out what the government knows about them. The FOIA can be “weaponised”, as when the activist group Judicial Watch used it to obtain email documents on the Obama administration’s response to the 2012 attack on the US compound in Benghazi…..

National security aside, the federal government’s executive branch is probably one of the most transparent organisations on earth — no corporation, labour union, lobbying group or non-profit organisation is subject to such scrutiny. The real problem, as Professor John DiIulio of Pennsylvania university has pointed out, is that most of the work of government has been outsourced to contractors who face none of the transparency requirements of the government itself. It is an impossible task even to establish the number of such contractors in a single American city, much less how they are performing their jobs.

In Europe, where there is no equivalent to the FACA or the Sunshine Act, governments can consult citizens’ groups more flexibly. There is, of course, a large and growing distrust of European institutions by citizens. But America’s experience suggests that greater transparency requirements do not necessarily lead to more trust in government….(More)”