May 29, 2009

Transparency through the ages

With the recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, I thought it might be interesting to look at a past Supreme Court Justice who has exhibited an immeasurable influence on governmental transparency and accountability over the past century.

Justice Louis Brandeis, who coined the transparency activist motto of "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants", began his crusade for transparency in the early 20th century before a Boston audience calling for the investigation of corrupt city officials. As Sunlight Foundation intern Andrew Berger notes, many of Brandeis' ideas of what it means to run a transparent government have remained largely unchanged since his time.

Brandeis called for uniform data standards so others could easily examine relevant data (city payroll, expenditures) and be able to determine if the money was being wasted. Whereas the fight was once over standards of accounting and the printing of reports, today it is over access to data and trying to get it in computer readable formats.

In addition to his fight for open data, Brandeis also called for open and public meetings for all matters regarding government business. While there are still examples of public officials not being very open and public about their business, the situation has improved since Brandeis' time.

Finally, there is the role of the non-governmental entity. This one recognizes that government action alone is not enough "keep the public sufficiently informed." Brandeis believed that once the people became informed, they would become engaged. He reasoned that once the public learned of the "specific acts of misgovernment" committed against them by their public officials, they would begin to demand accountability and openness.

No one, he said, could "look into the details of our city’s administration and be indifferent." Such information would naturally lead to indignation, and out of that indignation would come a movement for "remedial action." Publicity would overcome apathy.

Brandeis also believed that the press had the potential to be "the greatest agency of good government." This was largely a function of the press being the only reliable medium in which you could communicate with a large number of people on a daily basis. The explosion of blogs and internet connected government watchdogs would surely impress Brandeis and give him hope that governmental transparency would survive even if the traditional press did not.

Looking back at the past battles of transparency, it is remarkable how the fights largely stay the same while the particulars change from generation to generation. One can only imagine who will be the Louis Brandeis of today a century from now.

(Thanks Sunlight Foundation)