Monthly Archives: October 2014

Transparency isn’t a problem, but defining openness too narrowly can be

Summary: Openness doesn’t prevent government from getting things done, but needlessly calcified notions of openness can be a problem. Virginia’s statutes regarding electronic meetings are a case in point.

Last week, Jason Grumet, who is President of the Bipartisan Policy Center and just so happens to be hawking a new book, wrote a column in the Washington Post advancing the thesis that “there is a dark side to sunlight.” He argues that well-intended open government reforms now have made private deliberation and compromise difficult, if not impossible, at the federal level.

If you’re thinking this is the type of thinking you’d expect from an organization founded by four consummate Washington insiders, you’re probably on to something.  If you’re thinking that the argument has serious flaws, you’re right.  Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation does a good job of rebuttal in this blog post.  She notes that Congress exempts itself from the federal Freedom of Information Act, meaning that it isn’t transparency that’s stopping our dysfunctional national legislature from deliberating and compromising.  And she does a great job summing up benefits of transparency:

“[T]ransparency can shine a light on what’s not working as well as what does. It allows people to better understand how government functions so they can participate in the dialogue that is our democracy. It lets us learn of ineffective programs and push for their reform or repeal. It can also enable citizens and their representatives to learn of and prevent bad policies from being enacted. It forces those elected to represent us to justify the decisions they make in public. Only by doing that can they build confidence that they have made decisions in the public interest and not on behalf of special interests.  Finally, transparency allows citizens to identify the authors of flawed or failed policies as well as successful ones, and hold them accountable (or reward them) at the ballot box.”

It’s clear that openness is not a problem in principle. But Grumet’s challenge is a useful reminder to think about whether particular open government statutes create problems in practice, and, if so, whether there are actions that might be taken that can advance efficiency and openness simultaneously.   At least at the state level in Virginia, the answer is yes to both.

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