All over the world, governments are beginning to provide more information to citizens. To some critics, the pace of this transparency movement seems too slow, but it is a trend with significant momentum. Transparency advocates inside and outside government claim that making more information publicly available is an empowering act that will help rebuild trust between citizens and government. Increasingly, when people talk about public engagement and citizen participation, what they really mean is transparency.
The problem is that while transparency is one element of a productive citizen-government relationship, it is only part of the picture. And if it is not conducted as part of a more comprehensive set of participation initiatives or reforms, transparency may create new tensions and controversies, further erode citizen trust in government, and destroy the careers of many public managers.
The central problem in most democracies is not a lack of information. The main challenge is that citizen expectations and capacities have undergone a sea change in the last twenty years, and our public institutions have not yet adjusted to the shift. Because of rising levels of education, increased access to the Internet, and different attitudes toward authority, 21st Century citizens are better able to disrupt policymaking processes, and better able to find the information, allies, and resources they need to make an impact on issues they care about.
All over the world, we are experiencing the most immediate result of these changes: a small cadre of people – sometimes referred to as “expert citizens” or more derisively as “the usual suspects” – who regularly make themselves heard at public meetings and in the blogosphere. In case after case, on issues ranging from land use decisions to school closings to the use of vaccines, these active citizens are able to wield an outsized influence on public decisions. Public officials are constantly being surprised by the timing and ferocity of the challenges they receive, and constantly wondering whether the views of these active citizens are truly representative of the broader electorate.
For some time, smart and experienced local leaders have been dealing with these challenges, and trying to tap the new capacities of ordinary people, by organizing large-scale “deliberative democracy” initiatives. Typically, these projects involve large, diverse numbers of people (“going beyond the usual suspects” is a common phrase), and create environments where citizens compare notes on their experiences, learn more about the issues, and talk through what they think government should do. Some of these efforts also build in opportunities for action planning, so that citizens can decide how they want to contribute to solving public problems (in addition to making recommendations for government).
Transparency can enrich deliberative democracy, but not replace it. We need larger numbers of people to be involved in public discussions, and we need those people talking with each other, not just to government. Without initiatives and structures that will produce that sort of participation, transparency will simply give more information to journalists and active citizens who are trying to expose government misconduct and misjudgment, champion tax revolts and other anti-government measures, and oppose decisions and policies they don’t like.
It is of course beneficial to expose the errors and transgressions of public officials – there is truth to the favorite quote of transparency advocates, Louis Brandeis’ 1914 pronouncement that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But while transparency makes government cleaner, it won’t necessarily make it better. By itself, transparency doesn’t change the arms-length relationship between citizens and government: it just gives more ammunition to those who are inclined to throw stones.
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