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).