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Why Critics of Transparency Are Wrong

Recently, some political commentators have been pointing their op-eds at open government laws in an effort to explain the gridlock on Capitol Hill. In their view, transparency is what is holding lawmakers back from making progress on the country’s pressing issues.

In a new paper from the Brookings Institution, POGO’s Danielle Brian joins Executive Director of the Bauman Foundation Gary D. Bass and Ambassador Norman Eisen in arguing that not only is transparency not what is holding back Congress, but that increasing openness is the best method to fight government dysfunction.

You can read the full report over at Brookings or read ten key takeaways below.

1. Transparency Doesn’t Kill Deal Making 

“[T]he evidence shows that transparency does not kill deal-making in Congress or impair executive branch functioning, and has not caused the struggles now faced by our democracy. Accordingly, there is no reason to abandon transparency or the hard-won advantages it has gained us: empowering citizens to hold government accountable, preventing crises and safeguarding communities, increasing effectiveness while reducing waste, and engaging the public in democratic decision-making.”

2.  There Needs to be Balance

“To be clear, we are not transparency absolutists. We believe that transparency should be balanced with the appropriate secrecy that government needs to function—but ... there is already more than enough of the secrecy the critics call for. If anything, the balance tips too far in that direction, and more transparency is needed, not less.”

3.  The Alternative is Unacceptable

“We do not accept the notion of the transparency critics that the preferred alternative to the status quo is an undemocratic, secretive, and corrupt government.”

4. It’s More Complicated than Transparency

“Rather than blaming transparency for congressional inaction, we need to look instead at the complex and intersecting roles of political parties, partisan groups, and social (and mainstream) media.  Overlay the influence money plays in politics, a primary system that gives a vocal minority an outsized voice, election procedures that attempt to limit who votes, and congressional party leaders who can control committee actions and capitalize on existing congressional rules, and the result is a set of circumstances that makes it hard to change the status quo, perpetuates today’s gridlock, and creates cynicism about our government’s ability to solve problems.”

5. Quick Laws Don’t Mean Good Laws

“A return to secrecy and to the methods of Tammany Hall may get our government working again, but that is a government that we do not want ... Those smoke-filled back rooms have repeatedly been shown to cause cancer in the body politic.”

6. Transparency Discourages Corruption 

“The potential for bad corruption – whether through earmarks, campaign contributions, patronage, or other forms of “grease” – is precisely why sunlight is needed and, indeed, should be expanded.”

7. The Opposite is Not Privacy

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Jason “Grumet is… wrong when he says that ‘[t]he opposite of transparency is privacy, not corruption.’ The opposite of transparency is secrecy, and secrecy often leads to corruption. We have been there and done that, and should not go back again.”

8. Transparency is Central to Public Engagement

“The goals of open government are to empower people, to ensure that governmental institutions are responsive to the public, and to improve democratic practices and government operations. Transparency is an important tool that allows Americans to see what their government is doing, how powerful institutions are conforming to the laws of the land, and how “We, the People” can help to make it better.”

9. Solving Problems Early

“Transparency helps an open society solve problems before they become crises – and at its best, avoids those problems in the first place… Done properly, transparency makes governing better and less likely to be corrupt.”

10. Information is Power

“Simply put, information is power, and keeping information secret only serves to keep power in the hands of a few.”

By: Andre Francisco
Online Producer, POGO

andre francisco Andre Francisco is the Online Producer for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Information Access, Democracy

Authors: Andre Francisco

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