By Cary Coglianese
After the nation endured eight years of an administration with a reputation for excessive secrecy, promoting open government must have seemed like a political slam dunk to our new, basketball-loving president. As a candidate and as president, Barack Obama has promised to bring so much openness to the federal government that one might have expected Washington to be as transparent as a fishbowl.
But instead of restoring public confidence in government, Obama's rhetoric on transparency seems to have raised unrealistic expectations. Now it's starting to backfire on him.
The administration's new Web sites and policy declarations notwithstanding, media reports nearly every week demonstrate that this administration, just like its predecessors, will seek to protect internal government deliberations and place limits on disclosure when officials believe doing so will serve important policy objectives. Yet, because Obama trumpeted transparency, he takes a political hit every time his administration resists the release of government records, disappointing the left and inviting charges of hypocrisy from the right.
The issue is really how much transparency, and what kind, should apply to different aspects of government. Good, open government is not the same as a reality television show, broadcasting every move officials make and every conversation they have. On the contrary, good government actually requires certain limits on transparency.
As the chairman of an independent presidential transition task force that issued more than 25 recommendations to improve governmental transparency last summer, I share Americans' ideals of open government. But too much fishbowl-style transparency can dampen internal deliberations and official self-criticism.
Members of the general public and open-government activists are unlikely to appreciate how the complexities of governing often necessitate something less than full disclosure. But would government managers and staff be as willing to ask the proverbial "dumb question" - the kind that might be embarrassing but necessary for good decision-making - if they knew it would be posted on the Internet? The public actually benefits if government officials and staff "think out loud" and are willing to ask "dumb questions," as well as tough questions, before they make important policy decisions.
Fishbowl transparency can not only inhibit healthy internal debate in government; it can also conflict with other values, such as national security and personal privacy.
There is another kind of transparency that is at least as important, although it is probably in even shorter supply. Instead of just demanding more fishbowl transparency, the public should expect greater "reasoned" transparency.
This sort of transparency demands that government officials offer explicit explanations for their actions, laying out the facts, analysis, and options that were considered. These explanations can then be scrutinized by legislators, courts, the media, and ultimately the public.
Without requiring the release of every conversation and memo, reasoned transparency can still discipline governmental decision-making, because officials will know that they need to provide a sound basis for their decisions eventually. Reasoned transparency focuses public deliberation on what actually matters: determining whether governmental policies will serve the public well.
By contrast, trumpeting fishbowl transparency, as Obama has, can ultimately detract from, rather than enhance, the public's confidence in government. The potential for cynicism is great, because it will always be possible to make government more transparent in the fishbowl sense - placing cameras and microphones in every government office, for example, and uploading the footage to the Internet.
Because modern technology makes that kind of radical openness increasingly achievable, the nation needs stronger leadership to define the proper role for - and limits on - the transparency of governmental decision-making. No matter how well fishbowl transparency may play as a short-term, bumper-sticker political slogan, the public is better served by a frank assessment of what responsible open government actually entails.