The Downside of Transparency

Orhan Cam/

Can too much information hurt public engagement?

Can transparency harm public participation in government?

There’s no question transparency can be detrimental to government itself, of course. It makes it tougher to negotiate with contractors or foreign nations and precludes officials from taking some shortcuts that might turn out cheaper and more effective in the long run. Secrecy has its drawbacks too, though, and we’ve generally decided as a society that those are worse.

The idea that transparency could inhibit public discussion is less common and a little tougher to grasp. That question gets an interesting treatment, though, in a Google+ post that digital government writer and Columbia Journalism School research fellow Alex Howard passed along recently. It was in response to a blog post I wrote last week about the White House’s call for input on the next generation of its open government plan.

White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Nick Sinai is working on an update to U.S. commitments under the 60-member international Open Government Partnership. In a White House blog post he asked the public to email him with suggestions for what that update should include.

I noted in my post that email seemed a peculiarly un-transparent way of updating one of the U.S. government’s major transparency policy documents. I wondered why Sinai hadn’t used IdeaScale or some other service that would allow the public to automatically see what other members of the public were suggesting and, perhaps, to weigh in on which suggestions they liked best.

Howard passed along a post by Tiago Peixoto who works in digital engagement at the World Bank.

Peixoto argues that email may sometimes be the most reasonable way to manage public input given a number of flawed options. His post dates back to 2011 when the U.S. was preparing to launch the Open Government Partnership along with Brazil and several other nations. In August of that year, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein penned a similar request for open government ideas via email. Both men have since left the administration.

Peixoto wondered why Sunstein, who’s among the world’s leading scholars in decision making models would choose an input gathering system that, on its face, seems so old fashioned and inefficient.

Here’s the nugget of his explanation:

A possible hypothesis is that Sunstein might have been confronted by something that is no news to federal government employees: they have a very limited number of tools that they are actually allowed to use in order to engage with the public online. Having a limited number of options is not a bad thing per se, provided the options available are good enough. In this sense, the problem is that most of the tools available (e.g. ranking, ideation) do not meet reasonable standards of good "choice architecture", to use Sunstein's terms. One might imagine that as Sunstein went through the different options available, he foresaw all the effects that could be generated by the tools and their design: reputational cascades, polarization, herding… In the end, the only remaining alternative, although unexciting, was email. In this case at least, preferences are independently aggregated, and the risks of informational and social influence are mitigated.

Peixito clearly has a point that public comments can sometimes be less than the sum of their parts, particularly on a complex or controversial topic. I’ve written news articles on some of those complex and controversial topics that have drawn hundreds and thousands of Web comments. There are a few gems, but in most cases, each comment says less than the one before it and says it less artfully to boot. People who take the time to email a reporter directly, on the other hand, are more likely to have something interesting to say.

That said, I tend to think the negative outcomes Pieixito describes wouldn’t come into play much in the OGP plan scenario and that a more open model would produce better results.

First, there’s the question of polarization. That’s clearly a concern with anything that contains the word “government” these days, which can so quickly be highjacked by the left or the right.

But the community that’s closely following the U.S.’s OGP plan is extremely small by government terms and largely professionalized. (As evidence, I called about half a dozen experts on international organizations for a Government Executive magazine article I wrote on the partnership in late 2011 before giving up; None of them had heard of it).

Amazing as it seems, some government initiatives can still fly beneath the radar of rabid government haters and supporters alike. This was driven home for me when I spoke with Michael Reardon of the Labor Department’s office of Disability Employment Policy about a number of IdeaScale surveys his office had run. I asked why none of the surveys had drawn trolls or spoilers. His first response was “knock on wood.” But, his second response was that disability policy is a tight knit community and it’s not something that Internet cranks just happen upon. In other words, there’s plenty out there to be polarized about. The polarizers don’t have to go looking for obscure IdeaScale pages.

The possibility of herding and reputational cascades seems more likely. Both terms generally refer to late commenters echoing the positions of early commenters rather than coming up with their own ideas, either because simply seeing the other ideas dissuades them from coming up with their own or because they want to throw their lot in with an idea that already seems popular.

There’s no question that knowing what reforms other people have suggested might change how or whether people suggest reforms of their own. They may jump onto the bandwagon of an idea they like better than their own or not submit their own idea because they feel self conscious. After comparing these losses with what would be gained by learning from and riffing off other ideas, though, I still come down on the side of transparency.