The Dark Side of Government in the Sunshine

While transparency may promote government accountability and reduce corruption, rules to improve openness in government also can have negative consequences.
May 6, 2015
Philip Joyce
By Philip Joyce  |  Contributor
Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

Like motherhood, ice cream and the all-expenses-paid vacation, seemingly everybody should like transparency in government. The specter of elected or unelected officials making decisions behind closed doors conjures up visions of corruption and would seem to signify government on behalf of private interests. For this reason, most democratic governments, to varying degrees, now operate under various laws and rules intended to promote openness.

As a card-carrying good-government type, I am supposed to like transparency, and I generally do think it's a good thing. Certainly there are real downsides to secrecy and backroom deals. There are many positive effects that can come from subjecting public processes to greater scrutiny and from requiring the disclosure of processes and data. Transparency itself, however, is not without its pitfalls. So what's wrong with government in the sunshine? Here are a few of my concerns:

• Freedom of information laws can become excuses for not disclosing information. All freedom of information acts (FOIAs) contain exceptions -- that is, lists (in some cases long ones) of categories of information that a government is not required to provide to the public. There are strong justifications, such as privacy concerns, for many of these exceptions. They can, however, become an excuse for secrecy or (since FOIAs normally give the government specific deadlines for response to requests) delaying action on FOIA inquiries.

• The "C-SPAN Effect" can encourage political posturing over genuine debate and a search for solutions. Using the C-SPAN model, more and more state and local governments are making more and more public hearings and meetings available over the public airwaves or over the Internet. Inviting this kind of public scrutiny would certainly seem to promote accountability. But it also can promote demagoguery over problem-solving, and it increases the chance that hearings or legislative sessions will devolve into partisan speechmaking. I can testify (anecdotally, to be sure) from my five years as a congressional staffer that there is a marked difference between the behavior of members of Congress in hearings depending on whether the cameras are on or not.

• Discouraging elected officials from interacting socially can intensify partisanship. Limiting contact between legislators, and between legislators and lobbyists, is now a common effect stemming from campaign finance laws. For example, Minnesota's campaign finance reform severely limits the ability of legislators to get together socially if someone else is paying for it. While the aim is to reduce the reality or appearance of quid pro quo behavior, "I don't know of any evidence that [influence-peddling] was a big problem" in such social interactions, says Professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Jacobs says that while he would not go so far as to blame limits on social interaction for the reduction in comity in the Minnesota legislature, it was "one more brick pulled out of the wall of mutual understanding and respect."

• Efforts to publicize government performance can become "data dumps" such that the average legislator or citizen finds it nearly impossible to find specific, useful information. There has been an explosion of data in government. While there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with providing more performance data, often the form in which the data is provided makes it very difficult to locate specific information. In too many cases, websites focused on government performance are simply a collection of long government performance reports. It requires someone with a thorough knowledge of the organization of the jurisdiction (which agency is responsible?) and the policy area in question (what's a good performance measure?) to find and interpret these data.

None of the preceding should be taken as an indictment of open government or a call for a return to some mythical era when things worked better because we didn't know what was going on. It is rather to suggest that government transparency is yet another case where there may be unintended consequences that work against actually improving the operations of the public sector.

(In the interest of journalistic transparency, I'd be remiss in failing to mention that the inspiration for this column came from an analysis in the February issue of Governing by the always thoughtful Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene.)