Whenever a policymaker is at a loss for an answer, the demand for more transparency tends to trip off his or her tongue. So in Australia, the prime minister Julia Gillard promises reforms ‘driven by transparency, quality and choice’. The former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, says ‘transparency and competitive neutrality’ are essential. Meanwhile in the US, President Barack Obama says ‘transparency provides information for citizens about what their government is doing’. Transparency has become a political hurrah word.
However, this ‘transparency’ has nothing to do with genuine accountability. It actually short-circuits the process of deliberation that is needed in order to test out the ideas for which politicians and officials will be held to account. In a democratic society, public officials should be held to account for their actions and decisions, not for the manner in which they came to their conclusions.
These days, any official or politician exposed for attempting to exchange his private thoughts with colleagues ‘in confidence’ will be denounced. This is what happened in Britain recently when it was revealed that the office of Michael Gove, the Lib-Con coalition’s education secretary, went to great lengths to communicate through private email exchanges. This is now fairly common practice in many departments of the state, where officials go to great lengths to conceal their discussions from being exposed under Freedom of Information laws. Some policymakers in Britain’s Department of Education clearly decided that they would like to keep their private deliberations just that: private.
As with transparency, almost everyone claims to have tremendous enthusiasm for Freedom of Information laws, at least publicly. In private, however, these laws are experienced as an obstacle to be overcome. So former British prime minister Tony Blair wrote in his memoir that one of his biggest mistakes was to introduce the Freedom of Information Act. He said ‘it is a dangerous act’ because it made it very difficult for a government to debate the serious issues of the day ‘in confidence’. You ‘naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop’ is how he described his own role in the enactment of this legislation.
So why did the Blair government introduce what Blair now considers a dangerous act? For the same reason that every leading politician feels compelled to swear loyalty to the ritual of transparency. When public life is dominated by a mood of suspicion, the institutionalisation of transparency promises to leave little to the imagination.