The Limits of Transparency

11.15.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Openness in government is a prerequisite to democratic self-rule and is the best available antidote to official corruption.

Yet greater transparency, particularly on the international level, “is not an unmitigated good,” argues Kristin M. Lord in a new, somewhat contrarian book.

“In all likelihood, the trend toward greater transparency will be at once positive and pernicious,” she writes, particularly since some disputes are based on real conflicts of interest and are not simple misunderstandings that could be resolved through greater disclosure.

“More information about the military capabilities of other states may show vulnerability and encourage aggression by the strong against the weak. Greater transparency can highlight hostility and fuel vicious cycles of belligerent words and deeds…. Transparency sometimes can make conflicts worse.”

The author illustrates her thesis with case studies of the role of information in the unfolding of the Rwanda genocide, and of information policy in Singapore’s relatively open yet rather authoritarian society. She seeks to distinguish between the means of openness and the hoped-for ends that are implicitly believed to follow from them, sometimes without justification.

For more information, including the first chapter of the book, see “The Perils and Promise of Global Transparency” by Kristin M. Lord, State University of New York Press, 2006.

The ill effects of too much transparency are still a rather hypothetical problem, since national and international efforts to control disclosure of information persist and in some cases are growing.

In another recent book, author Alasdair Roberts identifies several factors that are inhibiting transparency, including the privatization of certain categories of government information, the increasing influence of international organizations with restrictive information policies, and the growing international collaboration of security agencies.

See “Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age” by Alasdair Roberts, Cambridge University Press, 2006.