Letting It All Hang Out

The latest political buzzword is transparency. But it may not be the cure-all it's cracked up to be.
May 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

We're going to start with a story from our past. It may be several years old, but it has a lot to do with the very current topic of government transparency.

So, there we were in a large office, meeting with half a dozen senior financial officials of a major Midwestern city. They were annoyed at us. We had publicly complained that their annual financial report had come out a month late. They addressed us in a condescending tone, one usually reserved for small children and ignorant puppies. They seemed to think we were totally naive not to understand what was at stake. The city was just finalizing a labor contract when the annual reports were supposed to have come out. The reports were going to show that the city had a larger surplus than anyone had predicted. "So," one of the budget officers asked us, "if we published those numbers on a timely basis, would we really have helped our citizens at all? Or would we simply have put ourselves at a tactical disadvantage in negotiations that were nearly finished -- and been forced to use that cash for higher raises, even though we didn't know if the revenue stream was going to continue?"

To this day, we don't know exactly what to think. On the one hand, the information under question belonged to the public. And every journalistic bone in our bodies says that such information shouldn't be withheld. On the other hand, can't there be too much of a good thing? How many citizens would be happy paying higher taxes just for the opportunity to review the city's books a few weeks sooner?

We have been thinking about this episode lately. The concept of "transparency" -- the ability to see through the workings of government easily -- is being used by elected officials ever more frequently as a kind of chicken soup for all that ails government. By and large, we see no problems with making sure that governmental activities are accessible to all policy makers, the press and the public. But chicken soup doesn't always hit the spot.

For one thing, transparency doesn't come free. Putting every comma and semi-colon of public information on the Internet costs money, so it seems sensible to consider the costs versus the benefits of some kinds of disclosure. A city may know exactly how much money is collected by every single parking meter. But what's it worth for you to know that, too? There also are widespread debates about whether or not e-mails -- even personal ones -- should all be available to the public through Freedom of Information Act requests.

There are questions that arise when individual privacy runs smack into the desire for openness. Jon Mills, director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida, is concerned about the availability of all trial and court-related information on the Internet. Until recently, that information was public but veiled in practical obscurity. Now, however, it takes only a handful of computer clicks to find someone's 30-year-old divorce proceedings, and that changes everything. "These proceedings contain allegations that may not be true," Mills says, "but people can take that information, package it and sell it, even if it's only allegations."

We've also heard policy makers complain about "open meeting" rules that prevent any two individuals from chatting about government business in the halls -- such communications now have to take place in large rooms with transcriptionists available. While the smoke-filled rooms of lore may not be admirable, it's our guess that stopping policy makers from having casual conversations leaves them negotiating exclusively in arenas given to posturing and partisanship. Our take on this: If we were never allowed to chat casually with a source over a cup of coffee with no notepads or tape recorders, we'd lose out on an awful lot of valuable information.

And speaking of those kinds of conversations, we had one the other day with a public official who believes that officeholders may not be as zealous in their belief in full transparency as they'd have citizens believe. "The politicians," he said, "are using transparency as just another buzzword. They're talking about responsible government and that means the citizens should know how their dollars are being spent. But politicians aren't going to reveal information if it's going to be put in the hands of people who could disrupt what they want to do. I don't think anyone really thinks transparency should go that far."