Transparency vs. Good Government

11.18.19 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

It is usually taken for granted that transparency is a prerequisite to good government. The idea seems obvious.

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing,” said President Obama in 2009. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

But in practice, that is not always true. Demands for transparency can sometimes be used to undermine the values of an open society, and current events compel a more nuanced understanding of the concept.

When President Trump and his political allies press for public disclosure of the lawfully protected identity of the CIA Ukraine whistleblower, their efforts are not calculated to promote accountability but to counter or delegitimize independent criticism, and perhaps to deter other would-be whistleblowers.

The Environmental Protection Agency is citing transparency in a pending proposal to block the use of scientific research in formulating regulations on hazardous materials unless the underlying data is made fully and publicly available. That means that research involving confidential medical records, for example, would not be permitted to serve as a basis for public policy under the EPA proposal, the New York Times reported, since those records are not (and generally should not be) available to the general public.

Some purported transparency shades easily into deception and disinformation. When President Trump “revealed” last month that Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi died “whimpering,” that was almost certainly untrue. No military official has been willing or able to confirm the claim, which seems improbable considering that Baghdadi killed himself by detonating a suicide vest.

Other forms of transparency are mostly harmless but also not very helpful. One thinks with chagrin of the many millions of pages of painstakingly declassified government records in official archives that go unread by the public and untouched even by specialists.

The point is not that transparency is bad or good, but rather that it cannot be an end in itself. It is a tool that is often indispensable for democratic decision making, but it is a tool that can also be used as a weapon.

Complicating matters further, the transparency that one person considers indispensable is often deemed to be unnecessary, inappropriate or even threatening by someone else. (Current congressional demands for testimony and documents amount to “constant harassment,” said Attorney General William Barr in a speech last week arguing for the primacy of the executive branch.)

New forums and procedures may be needed to adjudicate such disputes. Unauthorized disclosures can sometimes provide an expeditious shortcut, though the same dichotomy of constructive and destructive transparency applies with equal force to leaks.

In short, “Transparency is not, in itself, a coherent normative ideal,” as David E. Pozen of Columbia Law School recently wrote. It will yield positive outcomes in some circumstances and negative outcomes in others. Therefore, “less romanticism and more realism” about the topic is needed. See Pozen’s article “Seeing Transparency More Clearly,” Public Administration Review (forthcoming).

See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship: Creative Perspectives on Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence 

To empower new voices to start their career in nuclear weapons studies, the Federation of American Scientists launched the New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship. Here’s what our inaugural cohort accomplished.

11.28.23 | 3 min read
read more
Science Policy
Expected Utility Forecasting for Science Funding

Common frameworks for evaluating proposals leave this utility function implicit, often evaluating aspects of risk, uncertainty, and potential value independently and qualitatively.

11.20.23 | 11 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Notebook: Nuclear Weapons Sharing, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

11.17.23 | 1 min read
read more
Social Innovation
Community School Approach Reaches High of 60%, Reports Latest Pulse Panel

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year.

11.17.23 | 4 min read
read more