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Seeing Through Transparency

Transparency isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes, it does actual damage to the public at large.

Whenever some idea attracts anything approaching universal support it becomes the academic's duty and privilege to throw a few rocks at it. That time has come with the notion of transparency in government.

The transparency movement boasts a snappy Louis Brandeis slogan - "sunlight is the best disinfectant" - even though that's not quite what Brandeis wrote, and even though it's not really true. Few themes trigger more uniform agreement across the political spectrum. President Obama issued an executive order demanding transparency on his second day in office, and the White House Web site features a sweeping declaration that "government should be transparent," with an equally sweeping rationale: "Transparency promotes accountability." Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey no doubt had a long list of things he loathed about the Obama health plan, but he stressed the one he knew would resonate most widely: "Where is the transparency? The American people need to know!"

While the federal level gets more press, as usual, the transparency bandwagon is running strong at other levels of government. States and localities as well as intergovernmental organizations roll out laws, regulations and orders promoting openness. And countless public managers scurry to shovel out information as they try to get used to the world looking over their shoulders while they work.

So does transparency really promote accountability? Some of the time it does, of course. No wholly silly idea draws such wide and lasting consensus. And if forced to choose between the two extremes, too much transparency surely beats too little. But there's reason to worry that transparency is reaching the stage of faddish excess, distracting public managers and citizens alike from a better-balanced portfolio of governance measures. Consider three related ways transparency can go wrong.

Disclosure is all code, no key. It's usually easy to reveal everything while disclosing nothing. Few investors ruined in the recent meltdown failed to get voluminous warning of the perils they faced. Disclosure forms mailed out to meet regulatory requirements duly noted that interest rates might rise or fall, technologies might fail to work or become obsolete, sudden fissures in the earth's surface might swallow up key personnel, and so on, but provided no guidance on how to calibrate and rank these risks.

Citizens sink in superfluous data. In 1986 California voters enacted a law requiring citizens to be warned whenever carcinogens or other potentially harmful chemicals may be present. The list of Proposition 65 substances is long and growing; on the day I checked, wood dust had just been added. The law provides stiff penalties for failing to disclose a possible hazard but the inordinate number of warning placards have become the visual equivalent of "have a nice day" - ubiquitous and meaningless.

Only "interested parties" take any interest. Laws mandating open meetings or freedom-of-information rules are usually passed with idealistic expectations of bringing ordinary citizens into the public forum. But Norman Rockwell scenarios usually give way to the reality that most or all of the interest comes from rejected contractors, aspiring industrial spies, commercial plaintiffs, their lawyers, their lobbyists and the other usual suspects, with nary an ordinary citizen in sight.

Sometimes undue transparency does actual damage to the public at large, as when contracting rules make procurement officials tip their hands and surrender leverage. More frequently it ties up public managers' time complying with disclosure rules that benefit narrow interests. And it routinely gives an illusory aura of participation and accountability to measures that in actuality deliver no such thing.

In many European and Asian countries, with traditions of supine deference to authority, citizens probably push less than they should for transparency in government. But in America our political DNA inclines us toward excessive enthusiasm for transparency. Distrust of government runs bone-deep in American culture. And the basic logic of transparency - good things happen through decentralized individual action, without anybody actually organizing a desirable outcome - mirrors the market model that so endlessly enchants us.

Those instincts serve us well more often than not, of course, and in any case they're here to stay. But let's recognize that they will sometimes lead us to ride the transparency bandwagon too long, too confidently and every once in a while right over a cliff. Sometimes transparency is just what good governance calls for, but sometimes it's just too much information.

John D. Donahue is a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy, faculty chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Case Program and the SLATE teaching initiative.
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