Is the Government Too Transparent?

“Is our government too open?” As someone who works for an organization that waited nearly a decade for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to be handled by the government, it seems like a ridiculous question. But last week - during the annual celebration of open government called Sunshine Week - Stanford University professor Bruce Cain took a stab at answering that question in the affirmative.

Cain publicly debated American University journalism professor (and my former boss) Charles Lewis at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute. Cain argued that government secrecy makes our political leaders more willing to compromise and prevents special interests from hijacking the system.

Cain asserted that open meeting laws are prone to abuse by “well-resourced interest groups” and are a major cause of partisan gridlock. He contended that moneyed interests also exploit freedom of information laws, swamping agencies with requests and using the information for economic gain or for political opposition research (thus worsening partisan gridlock) at enormous cost to taxpayers.

Lewis’s argument that government is not transparent enough focused on FOIA. He discussed its successes—helping to uncover some of the most egregious instances of governmental and corporate misconduct in recent history—but he also highlighted its limitations, including long wait times and the law’s numerous exceptions.

Lewis, a highly respected investigative journalist, scoffed at the notion that excessive transparency is bad. A fervent believer in the aphorism “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he asserted that we should be more concerned about “distortions” in the political system, such as unregulated campaign spending.

The debate boiled down to two competing assumptions: transparency brings more accountability (Lewis), and transparency brings less efficiency (Cain). Both men tenaciously clung to their respective assumptions. However, by the end of the debate, they conceded the opposing argument had some valid points and that there is room for compromise.