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Thinking Out Loud


by Michael Jinkins | Oct 12, 2015

Transparency"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer" - by debates about transparency in the political world. I'm pretty sure that was The Bard's first draft of this highly ironic passage, or would have been if he were around now.

The debates about the virtue of transparency have emerged again, whether related to the White House, potential presidential candidates, the continuing fallout from the Snowden affair, or controversies about cloaking in secrecy the decision-making of legislators. We hear highly responsible officials argue in favor of less transparency for the sake of security. We hear their critics equate a lack of transparency with a lack of accountability, implying that any official is irresponsible who does not swear to make every policy conversation public. I have heard one journalist comment recently, with surprising frankness, that despite his general preference for transparency, he admits that there's no way if you are in leadership to be transparent enough to satisfy your critics.

On the whole I think the debate about transparency is good for the republic. Like so many values in a democracy, the virtue of transparency exists in creative tension with other virtues. It is not, nor can it be, nor should it be, an absolute value.

Most citizens would accept a relatively low level of transparency in times of war, for example, when the element of surprise is one of the most crucial weapons. We recognize that lack of information on the part of the public is justifiable because we don't want our enemies to know what our troops are planning. Most citizens would expect, however, a high level of transparency when it comes to making decisions like planning a new highway or bridge project. A variety of interests, needs and concerns need to be weighed in such circumstances, and a variety of voices should be heard. We know how often vested interests insinuate themselves into public works projects when fat government contracts are at stake. But most citizens are also aware that a good deal of decision-making in the public interest and for the public good lies someplace on the continuum between these cases of war and public works.

The late great Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book, Secrecy: The American Experience, makes a compelling case against the cult of secrecy and the needless proliferation of categories of documents and conversations held in confidence. His experience as a senator convinced him that far too many matters are cloaked in secrecy and far too many pretty routine papers are unnecessarily marked "secret." He knew from bitter experience that the veil of secrecy not only covers the work of the virtuous, but allows vice to operate safe from public scrutiny. (Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Secrecy: The American Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.)

We worry, with good cause, about the balancing of conflicting values such as security and privacy, national interests and individual civil rights, to mention just a few concerns among many. Michael Ignatieff's Gifford Lectures, delivered in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ignited a firestorm of controversy among political policy-makers, ethicists and theologians. But, in many ways, Ignatieff was simply pointing to irreducible stresses which refuse to settle neatly into a hierarchy of values none of which contradict any other values. (Ignatieff, Michael. The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.)

The current debates about transparency leave me without a final conclusion, and that is as it should be. But I have come to some preliminary principles which I think may be of value in a variety of organizations and institutions.

First, the fundamental quality that transparency is intended to promote is trust, and trust is indeed essential to our common life and common endeavors. An institution, organization or nation cannot long endure where trust has eroded. Leaders who lack the trust of the led are not long entrusted with leadership. Of course, trust is something that people withhold from others for all sorts of reasons, some of which are irrational. So, while we may agree that transparency can engender trust, it is also possible for the withholding of trust to create an environment which makes it very difficult for transparency to flourish.

Second, the fundamental quality which transparency is intended to preserve is accountability, and accountability ensures that decision makers pursue the ends of the institution, organization or nation above their own narrow or private interests. History teaches us that we are sensible to be suspicious of back-room deals and secret pacts. But transparency alone cannot preserve accountability when a culture determines that the ends of a good society are not worth pursuing, particularly when that pursuit requires placing limits on individual interests or rights. This is one reason why our debates about certain amendments to the U.S. Constitution have become intractable.

Trust and accountability: these are important principles. But there are other principles, no less lofty and no less sensible, that complicate matters.

I have found that one of the most bedeviling principles of organizational leadership is the principle of unintended consequences. You can count on this principle rearing its head just when you think a decision is really going to do some good. Unintended consequences, frequently really bad consequences, often attend the very best ideas made for all the right reasons.

In the spirit of transparency, for example, it seemed a no-brainer to broadcast all sorts of public sessions of our national lawmakers. I applauded loud and long the fact that we would be able watch our legislators at work. I was especially delighted when the votes of each legislator became public. "Now cometh the light," I thought, and no lawmaker will be able to hide his or her dirty little deals in a smoke-filled back room ever again.

Unfortunately, the fact that the votes of every lawmaker are more visible than ever means in practice that they are even more subject to the pressures of special interests with the deepest pockets. The quiet deals legislators used to be able to make, doing what they knew would be unpopular with a vocal minority or among the richest lobbying groups, but which they knew were good for the many, have become harder to make. The pork barrel politics have not ended, but crucial legislation for the common good is often held hostage by very narrow interests. Score a big one for unintended consequences!

The principle of transparency does not guarantee that we are privy to every argument, every concession made, and every aspect of the decision-making process. But it should ensure that we will always know who is responsible for making what decisions.

Of course, we should never forget that venality, self-interest and corruption will find their way in like a persistent water leak in the basement. I am reminded of a passage by Reinhold Niebuhr in which he says the best in humanity makes democracy possible, and the worst in us makes it necessary. So the debate about transparency goes on. And it must.

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