Transparency, Governmentality, and Negation: Democratic Practice and Open Government Policy in the National Assembly for Wales

By Schumann, William R. | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Transparency, Governmentality, and Negation: Democratic Practice and Open Government Policy in the National Assembly for Wales


Schumann, William R., Anthropological Quarterly


Introduction

We have made the transition from a nation that was governed, in the main, by an unelected old-boy network, drawn from a narrow band of people, where the vast majority of the public had no real idea of what was going on, to a far more open and democratic system of governance. Long may it continue (Carwyn Jones, thenMinister for Open Government, National Assembly of Wales Record of Proceedings, Jan. 21, 2003)1

What, after all, is claimed when the operation of power is described as transparent? What is seen through, and what, then, is seen? Transparency, as it is used in contemporary global-speak, presumes a surface to power that can be seen through and an interior that can, as a result, be seen. If the processes through which power functions constitute its interior, what, then, constitutes its surface? Its (ideological) representations? If so, can such surfaces ever be rendered transparent; can they ever be completely stripped away? Or, can they only be transformed/replaced/covered over? And by whom? (Sanders and West 2001:16)

This article examines the linkages between "transparency" and political legitimacy in the multi-sited domains of European governance. The specific focus is on the National Assembly for Wales, an elected body of 60 Assembly Members (AMs), which is institutionally tied to both the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU).2 The Assembly was established in 1999 following a public referendum (in 1997) and parliamentary legislation in London (in 1998). Somewhat paradoxically, it is intended to break from the historical culture of adversarial, insulated politics in the UK while operating within the limits of UK and EU governance structures. The Assembly was expected to usher in a distinctly Welsh and democratic political environment otherwise absent from Wales for more than five centuries. At the core of this new democratic mandate are the ideological touchstones of transparency and inclusion, which are institutionalized through formal and informal codes of conduct, new patterns of legislative practice, and technologically-driven networks of public disclosure setting "Wales" apart from "England" and "the UK." Given that the Assembly lacks primary legislative powers, i.e., that it may only adapt laws made in the House of Commons to the specific policy circumstances of Wales (see endnote two), creating a transparent institutional environment is a fundamental means through which the Assembly is legitimated as distinctly Welsh and democratic. Thus, it is not surprising that when conducting fieldwork on political culture in the National Assembly during 2003, the consistent response to my question, "What is your opinion of the Assembly's Open Government Policy?," was one in favor of openness in government.3 Who could question the value of transparency in politics, after all?

The goal of openness is neither unique to Wales nor to government institutions in general. "Transparency" is today the common lexical currency of a globally dispersed, if often overlapping, constellation of political and economic discourses heralding the practical administration of bureaucratic, democratic and/or corporate reforms.4 Undoubtedly, the multitudinous emergences of "transparency" as an organizing principle raise important questions about the confluence of political and economic processes of social (and self-) regulation and administration under global capitalism. Why, after all, is transparency so important a reference point of legitimate administrative practice across a range of institutional settings, in specified historical moments, and with regard to a "global body public" differentiated by, for instance, nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, and class? Equally critical questions, moreover, must be posed about how and why certain elements of this transnational lexicon are appropriated in some cultural-political contexts and less (or not) applied in others. Whereas the first statement above, made by a high-ranking elected official in the Assembly, suggests a necessary, if not mutually constituting, relationship between transparency and democracy, the second, by Sanders and West, poses a more cautious analysis.

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