The real cons of transparency

One professor doesn’t think government transparency would be as beneficial as is commonly perceived.

The transparency level that should be maintained was debated Tuesday at the Foley Institute’s Coffee and Politics lecture.

Mark Stephan, associate professor at WSU Vancouver in the political science department, lectured on the negative effects surrounding a transparent government.

“The notion of transparency creates unrealistic expectations, which become problematic,” Stephan said.

Stephan said much of the government is working towards a more transparent system between the people and the government, but that may not be the best option.

“From the beginning, the idea of transparency was to lessen corruption,” Stephan said. “Transparency taken too far can take away good deliberation; that is far from corruption.”

Stephan argued that when full transparency is implemented, it simultaneously takes away privacy. This often stops honest and necessary deliberation between politicians or government sectors for fear of the public eye, he said.

“What’s revealed has less depth – it’s all about appearance and not about substance,” Stephan said.

Stephan emphasized the idea of disclosure, rather than transparency, when it comes to governmental information.

“It can be thought of as relationship building; trust building between the government and the citizens,” he said.

This notion of the lack of trust the public has for the government sparked discussion in the audience, with many asking Stephan how trust can be developed without honesty on the other side.

“I think the assumption is that ordinary people don’t know a lot about the government, and therefore don’t know what to ask for,” said Fernanda Buril Almeida, a Ph.D. student in the WSU School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs.

Almeida said asking for information, or asking for the disclosure that Stephan referred to, comes with the assumption that the average citizen knows what they are asking for.

She added that American’s criticism of the government and its actions can be healthy.

“I think we all complain about it all the time, but we trust the government,” Almeida said. “If not, there is no point in the system at all.”

Other audience members questioned whether Stephan’s ideas on disclosure created a less open and participatory democracy, and if it allowed too much secrecy in governmental action and information.

Stephan said too much secrecy can also occur when all information is available to the public, leaving the important pieces of it buried.

He also emphasized a difference in receiving information when it is asked for, rather than it being purposefully hidden.

“Disclosure is an action, not a decision,” Stephan said. “Not all that is unseen is secret, not all is even seen by the government itself.”

Stephan also compared the rising demand for transparency to the rising amount of information available to the public.

“There is something about that relationship, between the lack of trust and the amount of information we have, that’s worth thinking about,” Stephan said.

When debating the relationship of trust and honesty between the government and its citizens, Anna Roberts, program coordinator for WSU Libraries, said there are many factors to consider and we may never know what the correct balance is.

“I thought it was a very legitimate discussion that we should all be having,” Roberts said.

She added that the varying viewpoints and arguments surrounding the issues of governmental honesty and trust made the discussion a healthy one.

“I have to agree with some of what was said, but I could also argue the other way as well, which adds to the discussion,” Roberts said.