Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic.
President Obama has called the US government – and in particular, the Obama administration – the most open and transparent in the world.
Though there’s little data to measure whether or not that’s true, perception-wise, the US ranks 19th of 177 nations in Transparency International’s latest index, with Denmark and New Zealand taking top spots for least perceived corruption.
But the question remains among some if transparency actually improves governance – and what limits there are, if any – regarding open governance in a digital age.
Since transparency in itself does vary in meaning, for all intents and purposes we’ll adopt Global Integrity’s three-part definition for open governance:
- Information Transparency: that the public understands the workings of their government;
- Public engagement: that the public can influence the workings of their government by engaging in governmental policy processes and service delivery programs; and
- Accountability: that the public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance.
Impact of transparency
When government is not transparent, leaks occur, which have historically lead to numerous costly scandals.
But leaks have also forced the government to improve its transparency, and have opened up public interest in keeping track of and enforcing government accountability (we’ve covered a variety of available tools that make this easier).
A 2014 study published in the Annual Review of Political Science concluded that in most cases, transparency positively impacted governance in both developed and developing nations.
But for countries like China, it’s a slightly different story. One paper (pdf) found that increased transparency did not correspond much with accountability in China due to their authoritarian government structure.
As methods and effects of transparency differ depending on what is made available and in what context, more issues have been brought to light.
Some concerns about open governance include:
The possibility of openwashing: Similar to the term “greenwashing,” openwashing refers to dubious claims of openness by companies, products, organizations, or governments in which the term “open” may only partially apply.
Targeted transparency: When the disclosure of information is provided in full as an alternative to explaining what the data actually means – all noise, no clarity.
Misleading data correlation: An essay by Lawrence Lessig argues that agenda-based transparency projects aimed to reveal improper influence or corruption may mash-up open data for assumed relations, as in between money and results, which enforce only negative government perceptions.
Privacy violations: Others still argue that there must be limits to what is open, as the release of sensitive information may jeopardize employees’ personal privacy; the NSA argues that revealing their tactics compromises their intentions.
While there are many countries that lack much in terms of transparency, falling back on censorship and press suppression to keep things opaque, it may be helpful for democracies like America to decide the best way to keep pertinent information not only open, but of practical use.
To harness this power accurately, a paper called “Infotopia” suggests four simple rules:
- Information that affect citizens’ interests should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public.
- The amount of available information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations jeopardize citizens’ interests
- Information should be organized and provided in ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information
- The social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that allow individuals and groups to take action based on public disclosures
Not everyone agrees; as transparency has evolved over time, there’s still arguments over if and where lines must be drawn, and whether or not transparency means delivering information directly or simply making it available to those willing to dig for it.
But as big data grows, allowing more and more detailed information to become publicly available online for scrutiny, the conversation will undoubtedly continue.
Originally published on June 17, 2014.