As part of a special issue of Re-Public on Transparency, Archon Fung discussed the politics of transparency, arguing that its primary aim should be to “enable citizens, individually and collectively, to understand and protect themselves against the risks and threats that they face”.
We reproduce the article in full because of the clarity of the evaluation.
Interview: Archon Fung talked via e-mail to Alexandros Melidis and Pavlos Hatzopoulos
A.M. – P.H.: Given the steady spread of a wider consensus within modern liberal democracies for more openness, is transparency an inherently neutral politically concept, one that it is unlikely to reflect clear-cut ideological divisions in the future?
Archon Fung: I believe that transparency will continue to have appeal for many parts of the political spectrum, but is not a politically neutral issue at all. This is because transparency that has value — that advances democratic values like political accountability or social values like protection from risk — usually imposes costs on someone. Transparency can show that a politician is corrupt, that a public agency is failing to deliver according to its promises, or that companies make unsafe products, treat workers poorly, or pollute the environment. When individuals and organizations are hurt by transparency, they will often organize to undermine that transparency.
My colleagues and I have written recently that there is a political consensus on much of the left and the right that government activities should be more transparent. There is much less consensus about the extent to which the activities of private sector actors should be made transparent. This is a deeply political issue.
A.M. – P.H.: In many accounts transparency is treated as an autonomous actor that will cure various ills of democratic governance and will bring civic transformations. Do we miss something when we understand transparency as if it is the equivalent of the invisible hand in the free market?
Archon Fung: The recent financial crisis shows that the invisible hand of the market is not always so benign. Similarly, for transparency to produce economic, social, and political benefits, it must be carefully designed to produce information that is valuable to people, that they can understand, and that they can act on in publicly beneficial ways.
Transparency is always created by some design. The minimal form is making documents publicly accessible in paper or in web form. More sophisticated forms of transparency — consider disclosure of US stimulus spending in recovery.gov, consumer safety information in the US consumer products safety database, or political contributions in OpenSecrets.gov — involve many decisions about which pieces of information are most important, how to organize that information and present it, and so on. Transparency is anything but automatic. My colleagues and I discuss why some transparency systems succeed and others fail in our book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency.
A.M. – P.H.: When you argue about the need to move from a government transparency focusing primarily on accountability towards systems that enable citizens’ evaluation of government activities, how far do you see that this evaluation can go? Should these evaluations have, in some cases, binding effects upon government policies? Should the evaluators be promoted, in some cases, to co-designers of government activities?
Archon Fung: There are many kinds of evaluations that should have direct effects upon government activities. However, I see transparency — whether it is for accountability or for evaluation — as exerting its effects through indirect mechanisms. The pathway connecting transparency to public decisions runs like this: some organization, perhaps a government or non-governmental entity, provides information to the public that it would not otherwise have. Actors in the public spheres — citizens as voter, investors, advocacy organizations, journalists, perhaps regulators — utilize that information for various purposes, such as lobbying for change or increasing or decreasing their support for some policy. Entities whose activities were exposed by transparency decide to respond, or not.
A.M. – P.H.: Most of the times it is hard and time consuming for both public and private organisations to comply with transparency needs. Is this an indication of the defective design of the transparency project and what are the core strategy elements for smoothly operated and efficient transparency policies?
Archon Fung: Transparency is costly, but so is opacity. Transparency efforts should thus be focussed on producing information that will be socially valuable and useful. Policies should focus on producing data that allows people to understand the risks that they face and protect themselves from such risks in domains such as health, environment, workplace health and safety, financial risk, and democratic government.
A.M. – P.H.: Recently, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation argued that the drive for transparency appears stalled. Is the wikileaks phenomenon more likely to further enhance this tendency of stagnation, or could it possibly provide an unexpected opportunity for the state to push an agenda of radical transparency?
Archon Fung: I don’t know what the future holds for transparency. I can see at least three important trends. The first concerns developments in information and communication technologies that make it easy to provide tools that reduce the technical cost of providing information (e.g. WikiLeaks) and gathering information (e.g. Amazon product reviews). The second is that advocacy and regulatory organizations may be becoming aware of the benefits of transparency as a way to advance their goals. Information about the home loan or mortgage negotiation behavior of banks can, for example, strengthen the negotiating position of community-based organizations concerned with fair lending or affordable housing.
On the other hand, many more organizations are becoming aware of the dangers that transparency can pose to them. So, the U.S. DISCLOSE Act would have required organizations involved in political campaigns to identify large donors and to reveal the sources of funding for campaign advertising. This proposal was defeated in Congress in 2010. Similarly, as awareness of the power of transparency grows, we can expect to see greater resistance to disclosure requirements from private corporations, industrial sectors, and even public agencies.
A.M. – P.H.: One of the critiques against many transparency initiatives is that they do not primarily target those who lack some formal rights or who lack the actual capacities to exercise them fully (the migrants, the precarious workers, the underclass). Would you argue that transparency is directly empowering these social groups?
Archon Fung: Some transparency measures do empower socially marginal groups and interests. One example that I mentioned above is the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act which helps community organizations increase the fairness of home lending by banks in the United States.
However, as a general matter, those who are politically weak and socially marginal will have a more difficult time securing policies that protect their interests. This is no less true in the realm of transparency than it is for other political domains.
A.M. – P.H.: Is there a role for the government in pushing or enforcing transparency in the operations of non-state entities, such as corporations or NGOs?
Archon Fung: Absolutely. I believe that the central aim of transparency is to enable citizens, individually and collectively, to understand and protect themselves against the risks and threats that they face. In authoritarian countries, it is easy to think that these risks come predominantly from governments and therefore that transparency efforts should be focused there.
In the industrialized democracies, however, many of the threats that citizens face come not from the government, but from corporations and, to a lesser extent, non-governmental organizations. Therefore, some of the spotlights of transparency should be shine there.
A.M. – P.H.: Let us imagine a coherent, well planned and implemented set of targeted transparency projects that are in place over a long period of time for a representative body of both public and private sector policy areas such as health care, education, stock markets, food etc. Does this bear sufficient emancipatory dynamic to revitalize democratic citizenship and what else is needed?
Archon Fung: Transparency is a necessary but insufficient condition for democratic control. Citizens must be capacitated and organized to make sense of information provided by transparency. More importantly, organizations, laws, and policies must provide channels of control and regulation that enable them to control both public and private entities in ways that protect their fundamental interests and realize their collective aims.”