Toward Fuller Transparency

Unintended Consequences of One-Sided Transparency
At the beginning of my Open Government independent study, which ends on Friday (only officially, I’ll still be very engaged on this topic), I set out various learning objectives.  One in particular was, “Unintentional consequences.  What are the unintentional — and potentially negative — consequences of Open Government?”  I knew there had to be an angle, an issue —something — I hadn’t yet come across which would add some counterbalance to my rosy-eyed view of Gov 2.0 and it’s possibilities.   Enter Archon Fung and David Weil’s chapter in Open Government titled, “Open Government and Open Society.”
Fung and Weig’s basic contention is that while overall the concept of  transparency is beneficial, the one-sided focus of government wrongdoing is both problematic and misleading. Misleading because it doesn’t provide citizens with a full and, therefore, accurate picture of when government is doing good work.
“[T]he current discourse of transparency — focused as it is on accountability and issues such as corruption — produces policies and platforms that are particularly sensitive to government’s mistakes but often are blind to its accomplishments. Transparency in this sense is like a school report card that only reports when a student is sent to detention, plays hooky from class, or fails courses, but does not register when she ears As in her course. “

Fung and Weig seem to imply that the progressive transparency movement may, counterintutively, move views about government further to the Right.  They argue that transparency initiatives which exclusively expose government fraud, inefficiencies, scandals, and corruptions will simply reinforce conservatives’ anti-government sentiments. It’s reasonable to extrapolate then that moderates and others could become more distrustful of government.

Fuller Transparency

Their solution? More transparency, not less:

“The solution to this problem is not to reduce government transparency, but rather to create a fuller accounting of it.  Instead of focusing solely on disclosure systems that produce accountability, we should press for disclosure systems that allow citizens to identify and express their evaluation of government activities as they would private products and services. One promising set of examples of this is public accounting systems developed by a number of local governments that provide a platform for citizens, civic groups, and other organizations to provide ongoing  feedback on the service provision of specific government agencies or key providers such as the police.”

Fung and Weig’s argument is interesting to consider, but I didn’t completely buy it.  People are already pretty doggone distrustful of government; convinced that our political system is broken and corrupt. It’s hard to be shocked anymore by the greed, deceit and incompetence of government and politicians reported daily or weekly. I also don’t think that further Bad Government news will necessarily cause someone to become more conservative.  Perhaps it will. But in general, people of every political persuasion tend to read and interpret information so that it fits into their particular world view.  I do, however, like and support the idea of a fuller picture of government. Of an A-F report card of government, if you will, rather than just an “F” report card.

Along these lines, recently discussed Jen Palhka‘s idea that “open data holds ‘citizens accountable to a definition of citizenship.'”  The bulk of his blog post highlights a thought-provoking quote from Palhka, founder and executive director of Code for America:

Let’s say you’re in a city and you see a broken streetlight and you want to report that … Nowhere yet do you report that and then see where your request sits in the queue of other streetlights potholes graffiti etc. that need to be fixed. What if, when you went online, you saw the full transparency: You saw your request go into the queue of everything that needed to be fixed what and saw the algorithm that actually prioritized that … and you saw, suddenly, that the streetlight that you want to have fixed is part of a huge number of things that your city needs to deal with, and there’s a limited number of resources, and you saw that they’re fixing 10 streetlights a day and they’re not going to get to yours for another couple of weeks? And maybe you also saw in that system that the streetlight that is broken five blocks away has also been the site of 20 muggings? You might then say, ‘I’d actually prefer to have that streetlight fixed first because there is crime happening there.’ And at that moment, I think, you have the citizenship thing which says, ‘I have a need, but others have needs too, there’s limited resources, I need to be a part of solving the problem of limited resources and the greater need and not antagonistic with the government saying you didn’t fix MY streetlight because I am part of a society.'”

Open Government vs Open Society: A False Dichotomy

By far, my biggest issue with Fung and Weil’s chapter was their treatment of open government as somehow taking away from the work that needs to be done in the private sector around transparency.  A “major pitfall,” according to the authors, “is that all this energy devoted to making open government comes at the expense of leaving the operations of large private organizations – banks, manufacturers, health providers, food producers, drug companies, and the like — opaque and secret [their emphasis].” Excuse me? Since when did focusing on one aspect of societal corruption mean that all others would be abandoned? To make a sizable dent in an area, it’s important to focus on it and dig deep. Open government activists won’t be as effective if their efforts are spread thin. A robust, strong movement is needed, but that doesn’t mean that strong movements can’t also form around other sectors.  And while I’m not as aware of watchdog groups in the private sector, from what I’ve read, there seems to be at least some oversite.  You can see public interest in corporate transparency with the success of documentaries like Super Size Me (food industry) and Sicko (health care), and with groups like Walmart Watch (retail). Furthermore, working on government transparency will have a huge effect on corporate transparency.  Think campaign finance reform.  Government and corporate transparency are inextricably linked to one another!

This quote by Fung and Weil drives me a little batty: “should transparency enthusiasts invest their energies in open government or in creating an open society in which organizations of all sorts – in particular, private corporations – are much more transparent [their emphasis]?” Um… what? This either/or question is a false dichotomy… and pretty ridiculous. By working on open government, activists are working toward an open society.  It’s not as if open gov folks are choosing one over the other.  C’mon.   And as I noted above, working on government transparency will effect corporate transparency.  If our politicians weren’t as tied to Big Business, corporations would inevitably be held more accountable, no?

I’m all for an open society; that’s why I’m an open government proponent and enthusiast.  Framing this as an open government versus “open society” argument doesn’t make any sense.  It’s plain silly.

Posted via email from Corazon y Mente

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Toward Fuller Transparency

  1. I like the idea of transparency helping to reveal the right doings, not just the wrongdoings, of government (and society).

    I haven’t read the chapter, but agree that open government and open society are not mutually exclusive, and that success in increasing transparency in government may result in a second order effect of greater transparency in the corporate sector (at least with respect to their interactions with government).

    However, given the recent Supreme Court decision effectively reaffirming the “personhood” of corporations, and their unrestricted freedom to speak with their wallets, it may be time to reconsider the restrictions and requirements for disclosure we exact for the privilege of incorporation.

    BTW, you might get more Google Juice if you change “Fransparency” to “Transparency” in your title 🙂

  2. Emily Cunningham

    Fixed! Ha! Last night was the end of a long, long day :). Agree with you here:

    “However, given the recent Supreme Court decision effectively reaffirming the “personhood” of corporations, and their unrestricted freedom to speak with their wallets, it may be time to reconsider the restrictions and requirements for disclosure we exact for the privilege of incorporation.”

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