Let's be honest about the flaws of government transparency


Comment: Before we decide that open government information is an unquestioned good thing, we should consider its costs too, says Lee Drutman

15th November 2016

For years, there has been great enthusiasm for open government information. The basic logic is that government collects lots of data, publishes lots of reports, and has all kinds of information about processes and procedures. Much of this has been hidden from the public. Now that we are in the digital age, everyone should have access to it. After all, our taxes support it! Information is power, and people should have more of it.

In most cases this logic is basically solid. But I want to suggest some notes of caution. Transparency has its benefits, but it also has its costs. Most of the time the benefits do outweigh the costs. But often, open government advocates ignore the costs entirely, and overstate the benefits. And in doing so, open government advocates too often ask for too much. Instead, they should be more targeted.

So, let's consider the costs.

One is that it takes time and resources to make information public, especially if it is data that is going to be put into useful, machine-readable formats. Data and reports not intended initially for public consumption may also need to be cleared and cleaned for privacy and security reasons. Obviously, these costs vary, depending on the information. But transparency is not always just as simple as putting something up on a website. And government agencies do have limited resources, and time spent preparing information for public consumption is time spent not doing other things.

Transparency has its benefits, but it also has its costs

A second cost is that, particularly in the case of reports, writers and participants may be willing to say certain unpopular but honest things if they know the reports will be confidential. If they lack that assurance, they may be more cagey, depriving decision makers of full candour.

A third cost is that it is easy for opponents or gotcha watchdogs to take information out of context. Often, transparency can expose the sausage-making of government. Political science research shows consistently that, while people like democracy in the abstract, they rarely like it in the specifics. This is a great irony for good government advocates who encourage active participation: the more citizens pay attention to what is happening, the more distrustful of government they often are.

These costs are often excuses that do get abused by enemies of transparency. Like the benefits of open government information, they are often greatly over-stated. But sometimes they are legitimate. Advocates of transparency and open government do themselves a disservice by dismissing these sometimes real costs. Rather than assuming transparency and open government cost little, open government advocates should consider different pieces of government on a case-by-case basis, asking, firstly, how much time and manpower will it cost to make public? Second, what valuable candour and confidentiality could be lost by making this public? And third, how much risk is there from information being taken out of context?

Just as the costs vary, so do the benefits. Some information is of higher value than other information. Some could save lives; while some is just interesting to know. Some information can enable citizens to make meaningful decisions; other information can just make citizens feel helpless. We should take the time to consider the difference.

One useful way of thinking about the value of information comes from Harvard professor Archon Fung, who argues that information should serve democratic ends. That is, citizens should be able to "use information to exercise influence over the organisations that affect their lives and to navigate life choices in ways that are more likely to advance their own welfare and flourishing."

We should consider which information would actually empower citizens, and how it can be organised so citizens can make meaningful decisions

Put another way, rather than just releasing all the information because information is there, we should think about which information would actually empower citizens to make meaningful decisions on important issues that affect their lives, and how that information can be organised and presented so that citizens can actually make meaningful decisions. Fung lays out this thinking in a wonderful essay that is well worth a read.

A classic example of truly useful and impactful information is the health inspection scores that are posted in the windows of restaurants in New York City. This is government inspection data. It is translated into a score of A, B, or C (easy to understand!) and presented to patrons just at the moment when it is most relevant to their decision (when they are deciding where to eat). And it has improved food safety. And possibly saved lives (by preventing food poisoning).

Obviously, the case for transparency is rarely as clean. But the basic principles can apply broadly by asking a simple set of questions:

  • If a particular piece of government information gets released, what will change?
  • Can the information be reasonably aggregated or translated into a format that an affected public will understand?
  • Based on this information, what decisions might an affected public make differently?
  • How will government or private actors act differently in response?

If you can't answer those questions, the benefits of the government information you are advocating to go public are probably weak.

Again, on balance, the benefits of most proposals for more open and transparent government likely do outweigh the costs. But open government advocates who ignore the real costs and overstate the benefits weaken their overall case. Rather than asking for everything, open government advocates should consider each request on a cost-benefit basis, using the questions laid out in the open here.

This article originally appeared in New America Weekly, and is republished here via Creative Commons

Homepage image by Brad Hammonds


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