Challenging Critics of Transparency in Government

Barack Obama sits opposite Norman Eisen in the Oval Office seating area.

Brookings today published my paper, “Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong.” It describes and subsequently challenges a school of thinkers who in various ways object to government openness and transparency. They include some very distinguished scholars and practitioners from Francis Fukuyama to Brookings’ own Jonathan Rauch. My co-authors, Gary Bass and Danielle Brian, and I explain why they get it wrong—government needs more transparency, not less.

“Critics like these assert that transparency results in government indecision, poor performance, and stalemate. Their arguments are striking because they attack a widely-cherished value, openness, attempting to connect it to an unrelated malady, gridlock. But when you hold the ‘transparency is the problem’ hypothesis up to the sunlight, its gaping holes quickly become visible.”

There is no doubt that gridlock, government dysfunction, polarization and other suboptimal aspects of the current policy environment are frustrating. However, proposed solutions must factor in both the benefits and the expected negative consequences of such changes. Less openness and transparency may ameliorate some current challenges while returning the American political system to a pre-progressive reform era in which corruption precipitated serious social and political costs.

“Simply put, information is power, and keeping information secret only serves to keep power in the hands of a few. This is a key reason the latest group of transparency critics should not be shrugged off: if left unaddressed, their arguments will give those who want to operate in the shadows new excuses.”

It is difficult to imagine a context in which honest graft is not paired with dishonest graft. It is even harder to foresee a government that is effective at distinguishing between the two and rooting out the latter.

“Rather than demonizing transparency for today’s problems, we should look to factors such as political parties and congressional leadership, partisan groups, and social (and mainstream) media, all of which thrive on the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.”

In one way or another, I have been fighting for government openness and transparency for my whole adult life, from cofounding CREW, to handling open government issues as President Obama’s “Ethics Czar,” to helping the Czechs join the Open Government Partnership during my service as ambassador in Prague. In the picture above, I am discussing a transparency-related issue  in the Oval Office in May 2009. So it was very interesting for me to tackle the scholarship underlying the arguments back-and-forth. I hope you enjoy the paper.

Click to read “Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong.”