if transparency falls in the forest …
Originally posted January 25 at revenuewatch.org.
Blogger Elisabeth Rosenthal raises a simple but vital point in this week’s NYT “Sunday Review”: As governments, watchdogs, the media and regular citizens embrace transparency as an increasingly important value, how do we ensure that information prompts action, and does not become an end in itself?
Using examples including restaurant grading in New York, risk assessment for loans and carbon emission reports, Rosenthal warns that:
… disclosure requirements merely get information onto the table, but themselves demand no further action. According to political theory, disclosure is both a citizen’s right and a tool to ensure good government and consumer protection, because it provides information that leads to informed decisions. Instead, disclosure has often become an endpoint in the chain of responsibility, an act of compliance with the letter of the law rather than the spirit of transparency. …
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously wrote in 1913 that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But in the cynical world, companies and political groups often deflect that light or diffuse it into 1,000 incomprehensible components.
Like the raw materials that become energy, disclosed information often needs refinement and a functioning infrastructure of expertise, analysis and advocacy before it becomes “combustible” fuel for change. Otherwise, as scientist Kevin P. Weinfurt, says in the article, “No one knows exactly what to do with the information once they get it.” Archon Fung, head of Harvard’s Transparency Policy Project and an RWI colleague, agrees that sometimes disclosure “is ineffective because there’s no way to act on it.”
Professor Fung and his team work with RWI in the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, which is named in explicit recognition of the dilemma in Rosenthal’s article. Without action, transparency may not create accountability, and without accountability, through new laws, new economic policies and sometimes a new government, information is just an endpoint, not a turning point.
Update: A few days after this post, a CNN story made a similar point in the discussion of Mitt Romney’s release of his tax returns. If you have a “convoluted tax filing that takes an accounting guru to deconstruct,” what have you really disclosed?