POSTED ON APRIL 10, 2013:
The Transparency Trap
Too much is troublesome
If you want to get the attention of a public official these days all it takes is to mention one word: transparency. Even if people can't agree on what it exactly means, you'll see public officials either being attacked for not being transparent enough or they will be defensive because they believe they are being plenty transparent.
The probe of choice to see if a public official is really transparent seems to be their response to an open records request. Those that use this tool believe that there are absolutely no exceptions to what information can be made public.
Those holding this view don't believe there are many, if any, rights to privacy or rights to privileged information. The thinking goes that if you wrote it then the whole world is entitled to know it. And the open records request makes the reporter's job, if not easier, at least faster than the days when they had to dig out every fact, every witness, every statement, and act like a media detective working a case. Now they can ask for volumes of documents where the public officials have to stop doing their work so they can do the reporters work.
Even when there is little or no evidence that the public cares or is interested in what information is being requested, you will always hear the requester say the public has a right to know and demands to know. That's about half right. They may have a right to know but seldom is there an outcry from the public on their need or demand to know. It just doesn't matter in their lives. They are not interested in the minutiae of the details.
What's really going on is a battle of accountability between government officials and the media. Not that the media is always doing it for the public good, because so rarely can this public good be proven. The media just wants to keep government officials on their toes by making sure they know that the information being requested can be demanded even if it's never put to any credible use that changes any outcomes or decisions.
Most public officials already believe in being transparent even if they can't completely satisfy some of those who demand it. The true leaders in this area of transparency are proactive. They are transparent because they believe it is an important part of their public duties. The citizens of Tulsa County and the city of Tulsa are the benefactors of having leaders such as these.
About five years ago, the Tulsa County commissioners realized that according to a national agency which scores government transparency, the grade for Tulsa County's website was a low C. The county was graded on whether the public had easy access to information on the county budget, meeting agendas and minutes, audits, contracts, public records, tax information, details on lobbying activities, and contact information for elected and administrative officials.
County leaders went to work fast with the goal of getting the highest grade they could possibly get. Within just a few short weeks, Tulsa County was re-graded, and this time received an A-plus. Amazingly, only six counties out of the 3,035 counties across America had ever received an A-plus. Tulsa County was the only county in Oklahoma to have an A-plus grade. They have kept that up ever since.
Over at the city of Tulsa, it was much the same situation. In 2009, the city's website grade was a C. Mayor Dewey Bartlett and the department heads went to work with the same goal as Tulsa County: get the A grade. After a few weeks, the city was re-graded and, it too, received the A+ grade for transparency. The city has kept this grade for the past three years. The updates and upgrades to the city's website have made more information available than ever before. And if you are one of the 10 people who watch TGOV you can now get all the city government information you want.
Neither the county nor the city's efforts has anything to do with being reactive to some demand or controversy. In both cases, local government leaders were being proactive leaders who not only believe it, but achieve it.
There has been some scholarly criticism on the whole issue of transparency. The German philosopher and media theorist Byung-Chul Han in his 2012 work sees transparency as a cultural norm created by neoliberal market forces, which he understands as the insatiable drive towards voluntary disclosure bordering on the pornographic. According to Han, the dictates of transparency enforce a totalitarian system of openness at the expense of other social values such as shame, secrecy, and trust. Researchers have also found that transparency can have significant unintended consequences such as undermining ethical behavior, leading to organizational crisis and collapse. In other words, those who have an insatiable drive to get all the information they want, whether needed or important, may do so for reasons other than just "good journalism."
Clearly there are times when transparency and accountability are absolutely imperative. Clearly bad deeds done in office or in an official capacity must be exposed. But do the media really need 50,000 pages of information from the Governor on her conversations and decision regarding Obamacare? She made her decision, she told us she had made her decision, she explained her decision, and then she moved on. So did the rest of us. Nothing in the 50,000 pages was going to change any of that. What more that could be really important to know beyond this?
Interestingly, the media has a privilege that keeps it from being as transparent as those they police. They don't have to disclose their sources and probably don't have to release any of their deep research, notes, or story background information even under court order. So, transparency really only applies to the public sector, not to the private or non-profit sector. It's all about those that work for the citizens, make decisions that affect the citizens, and spend the citizen's money. Nothing wrong with that.
But let's not let this notion of transparency get out of hand or get in the way of people trying to do the public's work. Having hundreds of open records requests that appear to be more of a fishing expedition is very costly to the citizens, with no productivity to show for it and oftentimes nothing newsworthy either.
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