Transparency: A Means to Making Government Work Better | Commentary

Polarization and gridlock in government has become a national meme, and some have speculated that government transparency contributes to the problem.

Critics argue that with the public and media constantly monitoring every move elected leaders and policymakers make, it’s difficult to create bipartisan dialogue. Publicly reaching across the aisle invites criticism from party stalwarts and could generate primary challenges by extremist ideologues.

But the idea there is “too much transparency” currently being floated by pundits and academics is a fiction. Those of us actually wrestling with the workings of government know there are still too many closed-door meetings, too many politicians making deals away from public scrutiny. Government still over-classifies too many documents and hasn’t done enough to declassify those documents previously classified.

While elites may give lip service to supporting the public’s right to know, it’s to their advantage to limit transparency. Wall Street remains cloaked in secrecy even after playing a leading role in the economic meltdown that peaked in 2008. Even though President Barack Obama preaches government transparency, his administration still withholds far too much information.

This culture of secrecy must be transformed into one of openness. Ultimately, the goals of open government are to empower people, ensure that governmental institutions are responsive to the public, and improve democratic practice and the way government operates. Transparency is an important tool that allows Americans to see what their government is doing, how powerful institutions are conforming to the laws of the land and how “we, the people” can help to make it better.

Transparency helps an open society solve problems before they become crises — and at its best, avoids problems in the first place.

Without meaningful disclosure, it’s unsurprising that congressional approval is in the teens, Obama’s is below 50 percent and the public believes the special interests are running the show. Of course, operating in a fishbowl isn’t easy, but the benefits far exceed the negatives.

Transparency has the potential to prevent passage of bad laws while enabling the public to hold elected officials accountable for the laws that do pass.

Transparency makes us safer. The Toxics Release Inventory requires companies to disclose toxic releases, and for the EPA to make that information available through the Internet. EPA data show that making pollution information public has helped drive a 70 percent reduction in releases of the initial 300 toxic chemicals on which the program first starting collecting data, a remarkable achievement.

Government whistleblowers also play a role in making us safer. In 2004, Food and Drug Administration whistleblower David Graham went public after his management pressured him to suppress evidence that a popular arthritis pain-relief drug was responsible for thousands of fatal heart attacks. That dangerous drug is no longer on the market.

Edward Snowden’s disclosure of National Security Agency activity has had an impact on protecting our civil liberties. Regardless of whether you think Snowden was right or wrong in leaking information, it is undeniable that the public and all three branches of government are now involved in a robust debate on the constitutionality of mass surveillance.

Transparency helps the public become aware when government regulators get too cozy with regulated industries. Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that hundreds of alumni from the Securities and Exchange Commission were representing corporate clients before their former colleagues, sometimes within days of leaving the agency. In response to the public exposure, the Office of Government Ethics closed this ethics loophole

Unfortunately, transparency doesn’t happen naturally. There are powerful forces that resist openness because they thrive in the dark.

There is still much to do. Core openness laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, must be updated to foster a presumption of openness, requiring agencies to justify withholding information from the public, and to post what they do release online in searchable formats.

Beyond overhauling core laws, there are three steps our political leaders can take to strengthen government operations through transparency.

First, we need laws and regulations that shine a light on the role of special interests.

Second, basic information about operations of all branches of government should proactively be put online without the public needing to ask for it.

Third, we must end secret law where the executive branch hides significant interpretations of the constitution and laws from the public and even Congress.

These initiatives will improve the way government operates and reignite positive civic engagement in the process. The more that Obama and Congress do now to cement government reforms, the harder it will be for the next president to reverse course.

Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project On Government Oversight and Gary D. Bass is executive director of the Bauman Foundation. Brian is the current chairman of and Bass is a former chairman.