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Opposing View About Transparency in Government

September 7, 2016

Long-time readers probably know a few things about me.  I worked in radio where covering news events was part of my job.  I worked with a state representative for nearly a decade in the statehouse.  And I have a great interest in journalism and reporting on the one hand along with transparency in government while at the same time being very cognizant of why secrecy in government (as seen from the pages of history) is also important.

If you have not already deduced from the above, well yes, I am nerd.  And I am most comfortable with that fact.

With that all stated comes this great read about how we might wish to think about transparency in government.  This is worth pondering–and to start you off I offer this snippet.

Historians, too, would surely love to know everything that President Obama and his top aides said to one another regarding budget negotiations with John Boehner rather than needing to rely on secondhand news accounts influenced by the inevitable demands of spin. By the same token, historians surely would wish that there were a complete and accurate record of what was said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that, instead, famously operated under a policy of anonymous discussions.

But we should be cautioned by James Madison’s opinion that “no Constitution would ever have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public.”

His view, which seems sensible, is that public or recorded debates would have been simply exercises in position-taking rather than deliberation, with each delegate playing to his base back home rather than working toward a deal.

“Had the members committed themselves publicly at first, they would have afterwards supposed consistency required them to maintain their ground,” Madison wrote, “whereas by secret discussion no man felt himself obliged to retain his opinions any longer than he was satisfied of their propriety and truth, and was open to the force of argument.”

The example comes to me by way of Cass Sunstein, who formerly held a position as a top regulatory czar in Obama’s White House, and who delivered a fascinating talk on the subject of government transparency at a June 2016 Columbia symposium on the occasion of the anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act.

Sunstein asks us to distinguish between disclosure of the government’s outputs and disclosure of the government’s inputs. Output disclosure is something like the text of the Constitution or when the Obama administration had Medicare change decades of practice and begin publishing information about what Medicare pays to hospitals and other health providers.

Input disclosure would be something like the transcript of the debates at the Constitutional Convention or a detailed record of the arguments inside the Obama administration over whether to release the Medicare data. Sunstein’s argument is that it is a mistake to simply conflate the two ideas of disclosure under one broad heading of “transparency” when considerations around the two are very different.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Solly permalink
    September 7, 2016 6:35 PM

    Sunstein’s opinion genuinely reflects the viewpoint of a czar. You great unwashed rabble don’t need to know who and how. Just accept it and like it and be sure to close the barn door after the horse has escaped.

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