April 28, 2009

Are transparency efforts counter-productive?

I'd guess that most people who read this blog support the idea of increased government transparency. I'm pretty sure most people -- if you asked them on the street -- would also support increased government transparency.

But do transparency websites such as this one actually further the cause of transparency?

Good government activist Aaron Swartz argues in his post, Transparency is Bunk, that the traditional method of most transparency-minded websites doesn't actually serve the cause of transparency.

Instead, he says, transparency activists cajole and pressure public officials to give up records (such as employee salaries and contract amounts, as is done on TransparentNevada) and then allow easy access to those records.

The problem with this, Swartz argues, is that many "public records" are simply a "cover story" that obscures what is really going on.

The problem is that reality doesn’t live in the databases. Instead, the databases that are made available, even if grudgingly, form a kind of official cover story, a veil of lies over the real workings of government. If you visit a site like GovTrack, which publishes information on what Congresspeople are up to, you find that all of Congress’s votes are on inane items like declaring holidays and naming post offices. The real action is buried in obscure subchapters of innocuous-sounding bills and voted on under emergency provisions that let everything happen without public disclosure.

Swartz believes the solution is old-fashioned investigative journalism. Investigations that uncover the "cover stories" and break the scandals is what actually increases openness in government.

Although some of Swartz's complaints have merits, he misses on others.

Swartz says that merely having the data out there doesn't result in actual transparency, in which he defines as oversight or good governance.

In a strict sense, he is right. TransparentNevada, however, shows that getting the data out there is a huge first step.

After launching TransparentNevada it became clear that many fire captains and fire engineers were making "well over $200,000 a year, most if it in overtime."

Would this potential abuse of the overtime system have been noticed if the salaries were kept under lock and key? I doubt it.

Making the salary data available was a necessary first step towards increasing transparency and accountability in state government.

Update 5/4: Check out Evgeny Morozov's take on the issue.