Transparency alone won’t cure all that ails us

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pretty soon, I guess we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

The problems we face — by any measure and from any political perspective — are almost paralyzing: two wars, exploding budget deficits, systemic under- and unemployment, decaying infrastructure, flawed education and health-care systems, a warming climate, threats from terrorists around the world and financial institutions that are too big to fail and too powerful to regulate.

Naturally, we’ve looked to our elected officials for solutions. Instead of solutions, however, we’ve primarily found bitter partisanship, a lack of political courage and selfish deference to special interests.

In recent months, though, those officials finally have offered us something, a universal antidote that has spread through agencies and legislatures across the nation with Internet-like speed: Transparency.

A week’s worth of headlines demonstrates the ubiquity of this silver bullet — “Greater Transparency Needed in Global Oil Market,” “State Lawmakers Want More Transparency in Health Care,” “Lobbying Rule Adds Transparency to Process,” “Bernanke Offers Transparency,” “New Credit Card Law Adds Transparency,” “Lawmaker Seeks More Transparency in Parole Process,” “Transparency Added to Intelligence Bill,” “Bill Seeks Transparency in Employees’ Health Program” and “Proposed 401(k) Regulations Aim for Enhanced Transparency,” to name just a few.

Transparency, of course, is a good thing. As cliché as it might sound, our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and renewed efforts to make government transparent undoubtedly are needed to make complicated and hidden government processes more accessible. People I respect immensely have dedicated their careers to opening government, and the importance of their work cannot be overstated.

I’m skeptical, though, of this government-led drive for transparency. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I can’t help but wonder whether this sudden embrace of transparency is a convenient way for our officials to avoid making hard, unpopular decisions. “Here’s everything you need to know,” they seem to say as they bring government into the open, “you figure it out.” Moreover, many of their efforts to create transparency are aimed at others.

Take, for example, the recent transparency movement in Illinois. Facing unprecedented and potentially devastating deficits, Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly could have rolled up their sleeves and made the hard decisions about taxes and spending that are necessary to save Illinois from financial disaster. Rather, they agreed that Quinn would delay proposing his budget for three weeks and instead create a Web site designed to promote “interaction and transparency” regarding the state’s financial condition. Thousands of Illinois citizens have logged on to review the materials and offer comments, but, realistically, none of this brings Illinois any closer to a meaningful budget.

Meanwhile, after putting the governor’s budget in the public’s hands, the members of the Illinois Senate began their work on the deficit in a much different way — behind closed doors. In spite of the Illinois Constitution’s requirement that all sessions of the House and Senate be open to the public, the Senate on Feb. 17 convened in secret to receive a budget briefing from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When confronted about the session by angry reporters, Senate President John Cullerton shrugged off their complaints. The senators wanted to be able to “ask questions and have a free exchange of ideas without having to be worried about what the press might report,” he said, noting that, after all, some of the senators are running for higher office.

National efforts to reform the financial sector and to reduce greenhouse gases similarly appear high on transparency and low on substance. While the derivative industry and members of Congress tout a new transparency into the murky world of high finance, most of the other proposals to reign in financial institutions have died quietly.

The negotiations over reducing carbon emissions likewise have produced no consensus, except perhaps the belief that the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule — which requires companies emitting more than 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year to disclose how much they’re emitting — might somehow solve the problem on its own.

Even if transparency itself could solve a problem, the commitment to true transparency often is lacking. It’s one thing for a legislature to demand transparency in the executive branch or for an agency to require transparency in the businesses it regulates. It’s quite another for officials to impose transparency on themselves. And, as we’ve seen in the Obama administration, self-imposed transparency often falls short of the openness promised.

None of this means we should discourage the new wave of transparency or surrender in the fight for open government. However, we must remember that transparency is a means, not an end; that it is a tool to use when measuring government’s effectiveness, not a measure of that effectiveness itself.

For obvious reasons, transparency sells — and it should. Transparency, however, accomplishes little on its own. For transparency to matter, at least two other forces must be present.

First, someone — or many someones — must be watching. As news staffs shrink, the era of aggressive investigative reporters employed and empowered by traditional news outlets appears to be ending. A new era is dawning, however, one featuring bloggers, citizen journalists and the technological ability to analyze and disseminate billions of bytes of data. Will this new era produce worthy watchdogs? Only time will tell.

Second, government officials must be willing — voluntarily or under pressure — to act. Transparency is designed to ferret out corruption, disclose improper influences and shame political cowardice. If officials believe they are immune from such disclosures — whether because of the power of their incumbency, the size of their war chests or the unpopularity of the right thing to do — all the transparency imaginable will be meaningless.

We therefore can’t be satisfied with transparency. We need more — more attention, more analysis, more accountability. If we demand and receive these benefits of transparency, we’ll be well on our way to solving the problems we face.

If we don’t, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

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