Thursday, January 22, 2009

Promoting the Value of Transparency

President Obama seems to be taking a substantial risk for our benefit.

So far, he has made significant efforts to make the workings of government more transparent than before. He has told agencies to be default to giving people information they request through the Freedom of Information Act, rather than hunting for reasons to keep the information secret, and has taken steps to put government information on the web where government activities can be monitored by private citizens.

However, transparency comes with risks. It leaves the Obama Administration open to embarrassing disclosures that previous administrations would have been able to cover up. There is little use that Obama’s political adversaries will be ready to use these freedoms to attack Obama himself, and to try to clear room for an opportunity to reach their own ambitions.

Whether future Presidents will choose openness over secrecy will depend substantially on whether Obama's experiment turns into a success or a failure. They will be able to make an easy contrast between the Bush’s administration’s success in avoiding any serious consequences for its actions (even winning a second term), and whatever fate Obama faces as a result of his openness.

We have the capacity to influence how future generations will run their affairs in a government devoted to transparency or a government of secrecy substantially by influencing whether the government produces more openness or more secrets. We do this by taking action to see if the author of an open government gets our praise for their actions, or our wrath and condemnation.

The problem is that the challenges to the doctrine of transparency will not come directly. The lessons will be learned indirectly. When some piece of information made freely available to others allows those others to raise objections, the dispute will be over whatever matter the information pertains to. Yet, the effect may make Obama regret, and future Presidents decide to avoid, any attempt at transparency.

If we wish to preserve this doctrine of transparency for future generations, then we need to help ensure that it works.

We do this by being ready to condemn any person who exploits the doctrine for personal gain.

The response, to have ready at all times, should always be:

Okay, you don't like X. However, I remind you that the very reason the President makes this information freely available is so that we the People have an opportunity to comment on it – to express our approval or disapproval and make suggestions to improve it. Obama could, as other Presidents have done, keep all of this information hidden, then he would have been free of your criticism. But we would also not have a government of the people.

This does not mean that a doctrine of transparency implies that the leader is now immune from criticism. If the Bush Administration had made public all of the things it did in private, the proper response would not have been to make the administration immune from criticism because of the transparency. The criticism in this case would have been rightfully deserved. The Bush Administration needed secrecy in order to get away with much of what it got away with.

Yet, ironically, it also spent the last seven years telling us, "If you have nothing to hide, then you have no reason to be worried about the fact that we are reading your emails and listening in on your telephone calls."

The point is to focus attention on the specific policies that are worthy of criticism and why they are worthy of criticism, while protecting and preserving the doctrine of transparency.

It requires a delicate balance. Which is precisely why I start practicing that balance as soon as possible.

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