Behind Closed Doors: Governmental Transparency Gives Way to Secrecy

By Florini, Ann | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Behind Closed Doors: Governmental Transparency Gives Way to Secrecy


Florini, Ann, Harvard International Review


A few years ago, I sat at a table in a Washington think-tank with a group of mid-level Japanese officials. They were spending several weeks in the United States on a study tour, and I was meeting with them to give a talk on governance and access to information. Japan had recently passed, but not yet implemented, a sweeping freedom of information law, and the bureaucrats were puzzled about how they were to implement it. Or even whether they should implement it. After all, as one earnest young woman asked, if the government starts giving people information, they might want to do something with that information. "And what if they use it the wrong way?"

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That question, and the fear that lies behind it, has come to cast a dark shroud over what had become a powerful movement in the world: the trend toward greater transparency. Inspired in part by long-standing US arguments about the value of openness and transparency as the bedrock of democracy, the driver of prosperity, and even a guarantor of security, citizens around the world are demanding that their governments open their files. And governments are responding. From Mexico City to Johannesburg to London to Tokyo to Beijing, governments have adopted new laws and regulations on access to information.

This trend toward transparency holds great promise for improving the state of the world. It is indispensable for reducing corruption--indeed, many of the citizens' movements that have campaigned for the right to know got their start as anti-corruption efforts. But the benefits of transparency extend well beyond enabling citizens to clean up dirty governments. Even honest officials make mistakes that need correcting, and transparency is the most effective error-correction system humanity has yet devised. Transparency can contribute to efficient and effective governance by providing feedback channels, enabling officials and citizens alike to evaluate policies and adjust them accordingly. It provides a means of detecting, and thus correcting, errors in the policies of governmental and inter-governmental institutions--errors that in the era of global integration can wreak havoc on bystanders if left uncorrected.

Moreover, as democratic norms spread, it is harder and harder to maintain societal consensus on decisions reached in secret by small elites. Publics in some countries have proved willing to accept painful economic reforms, but only when they have been fully consulted and kept fully informed. Increasingly, transparency is seen as an essential component of democracy itself, part of the empowerment of ordinary citizens so that they can take meaningful part in shaping the decisions that affect their lives. In theoretical terms, transparency is valuable because it makes it possible to overcome what social scientists call "agency" problems. In any large society, principals, such as citizens or shareholders, delegate decision-making responsibility to agents, such as a government or corporate management. Problems arise because the principals are never able to perfectly monitor their agents. The whole point of having agents, after all, is that it is too costly and time-consuming for the principals to keep themselves fully informed. The principals necessarily know less about the situation the agents face and the actions the agents take than the agents themselves do. And the agents have strong incentives to keep their principals in the dark, both to protect themselves against being accused of making mistakes and to reap personal gains.

In short, transparency often requires that agents act against their own interests, disclosing information that can be used against them. Consequently, it is not surprising that increasing the level of transparency usually requires a struggle. Sometimes this is to hide nefarious evil-doing, but often the motives of those who prefer secrecy are actually good. Government officials argue that they need to have their decision-making processes protected from excessive scrutiny to avoid having that decision making bog down in a morass of special interest pleadings. …

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