All Too Familiar: The Brookings Response to Transparency Critics

In a recent Brookings publication entitled Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong, Gary D. Bass, Danielle Brian and Norman Eisen take on a growing number of critics who have publicly questioned the trend towards more transparency in US politics. A healthy debate on this topic is long overdue. There is shockingly little empirical research to date in political science about transparency, open meeting laws, disclosure rules and related topics. But how we discuss and evaluate transparency matters greatly.

The Brookings article suffers in some ways that are characteristic of the reform community. For many years the implicit and often unexamined assumption behind American political reform was that more transparency, public participation, conflict of interest regulation and the like was the answer to our political problems. In my forthcoming book Democracy More or Less, I argue that decades of political science research should have undermined any naive faith in citizen capacity and made us aware that pluralist realities often overtake populist ideals. A more realistic reform agenda must take more seriously the role that formal and informal intermediaries play and design the “stakeholder” side of democracy to be more fair and effective.

The Brookings paper ends with an extended, unnecessary argument against imaginary critics who apparently think that transparency has no role. As if serious scholars like Sarah Binder, Frances Lee and Frank Fukuyama would ever make such an argument. The right argument about transparency is not whether it is an important democratic value that promotes accountability and good governance. Rather, it is about how much transparency is needed for holding governments accountable and at what point in the decision processes it is needed most.

The authors concede at several points that transparency demands cannot be absolute. For instance they say: “Where there are legitimate problems with openness laws and procedures, we should fix them;” “We are all for deal-making in order to get things done…we do not oppose private communications; ” and “Deliberation in front of the cameras doesn’t always produce the best public policy.” But in every instance they quickly hedge their concession with such caveats as: “But the need for that balance is already widely agreed upon and it has by and large been struck (all too often with a decided tilt towards secrecy),” or “but we should recognize that secrecy brings serious risks, and that transparency is required to hedge against those risks.”

I applaud their attempt to bring data into the discussion with their test of whether televising Senate deliberations affected its productivity, even though the test itself is pretty weak and questionable in its choice of variables. However, their empirical assertion that government disclosure tools are frequently used by the public” is misleading. Citing the heavy use of FOIA by seniors and veterans neglects the important distinction between citizen requests for information about their own government benefits versus requests for information about government policies. The latter, not the former, relate to democratic accountability, and they are largely made by the press and other intermediaries (see my co-authored chapter on transparency in the volume Democracy Transformed co-edited with Russ Dalton and Susan Scarrow for details).

At several points, they defend the status quo by heralding the fact that transparency laws are weak. Apparently, Binder and Lee are wrong because strict open meeting and FOIA laws do not apply to Congress. And critics of agency sunshine rules miss that notational voting is allowed. But they do not say whether they would favor reforms to fix these omissions. I suspect that they would not but they should. In my transparency chapter in Democracy More or Less, I show that when such rules are applied strictly at the local government level, they can lead to absurd intrusions into the political process.

I also make the point in my book that one of the confusing problems about political reform is that we are often dealing with opposite ends of the spectrum. In some cases, we may have gone too far in preserving government secrecy (e.g. FISA) while in other settings we have gone too far in the transparency direction (e.g. strict enforcement of the California’s Brown Act). We also do not always distinguished between pre-decision, in process and post-decision transparency. The demand to see decisions being made is more often about giving reporters fodder for juicy stories or enabling groups to pressure decision-makers than helping voters make decisions. Voters rarely understand or pay attention to process. They care more about effects.

The authors several times refer to how transparency helps “the public” see and understand what the government is doing, but they elide over the important fact that this information brokering role is played by groups with their own agendas. The fiction that they represent “the public” is problematic. As critics of US pluralism have long pointed out, interest groups politics all too often over-represent those with intense preferences and resource advantages.

Until we rid ourselves of populist illusions and focus more consciously on the role that stakeholders, activists and other intermediaries should and will inevitably play in American democracy, we will continue to double down on failed strategies and be disappointed with the results.

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