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Brookings Now

5 Myths You Shouldn’t Believe about Government Transparency

Responding to critics of openness and transparency in government who claim that these are the causes of governance problems in America, the authors of a new Center for Effective Public Management paper counter that:

the evidence shows that transparency does not kill deal-making in Congress or impair executive branch functioning, and has not caused the struggles now faced by our democracy. Accordingly, there is no reason to abandon transparency or the hard-won advantages it has gained us: empowering citizens to hold government accountable, preventing crises and safeguarding communities, increasing effectiveness while reducing waste, and engaging the public in democratic decision-making.

Gary Bass—executive director of the Bauman Foundation; Danielle Brian—executive director of the Project on Government Oversight; and Brookings Visiting Fellow Norman Eisen argue in “Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong” that “more transparency is needed, not less,” to solve Washington’s problems. They respond to transparency critics’ five principle myths.

Myth 1: Transparency kills deal-making in Congress

“Whatever the causes of Congress’s recent low productivity, both data and common sense show that transparency is not the cause of congressional gridlock or dysfunction.” 

Myth 2: Executive branch transparency impairs government functioning

“Critics will always find individual examples where transparency interfered with executive decision-making, but on the whole, transparency has helped make agency operations be far more accountable to the public, Congress, and other executive branch agencies.”

Myth 3: “Honest Graft” will get government working again

“A return to secrecy and to the methods of Tammany Hall may get our government working again, but that is a government that we do not want … Those smoke-filled back rooms have repeatedly been shown to cause cancer in the body politic.”

Myth 4: Transparency just helps lobbyists

“The critics aren’t just arguing that transparency only helps lobbyists, but that it isn’t much help to regular Americans. … The most frequent use of the FOIA comes from seniors and veterans – that is,’regular folks.’ Also it is the intermediary groups – newspapers, nonprofits, libraries, unions, businesses – that are essential in pursuing an open, honest, well-functioning government.”

Myth 5: Bipartisanship behind closed doors is the answer to getting Congress working again

“While it’s vitally important that official actions and business take place transparently, this doesn’t mean that members and staff cannot discuss or deliberate issues in private beforehand.”


“In fact,” the authors say,

transparency is actually one of the areas today where Congress can find common ground to help make government work better. To be clear, we are not transparency absolutists. We believe that transparency should be balanced with the appropriate secrecy that government needs to function — but as we demonstrate below, that balance is already being struck. When one looks beyond the rhetoric at the actual facts of government operations, there is already more than enough of the secrecy the critics call for. If anything, the balance tips too far in that direction, and more transparency is needed, not less.

Read the full paper here.

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