The Perils and Promise of Government Transparency

Archon Fung and David Weil
Authors, "Full Disclosure"
Thursday, March 15, 2007; 12:00 PM

As part of Sunshine Week, authors Archon Fung and David Weil were online Thursday, March 15 at noon ET to discuss and take questions on the book they wrote (with Mary Graham), " Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency," about ineffectiveness and counterproductivity in the government's efforts and laws for informing the public.

Veto Threats Hang Over House FOIA Bills (AP, March 14)

The transcript follows.

Fung is an associated professor of public policy at Harvard, and is also the author of "Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy."

Weil is a professor of economics at Boston University. His other books include "A Stitch in Time: Lean Retailing and the Transformation of Manufacturing."


Denver, Colo.: Are there examples of "excess transparency" -- when the law requires so much reporting that the truth (i.e., the proscribed behavior) can be lost in the avalanche of data?

Archon Fung: Denver, good question. There are certainly many occasions on which there is too much transparency. Some would argue that Megan's Laws, which require convicted sexual offenders to register their addresses, requires too much disclosure.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Is it also a problem that not only that lots of government documents are delayed a while before they are made public, but that when they are made public, it's as a huge amount of documents released all at once that make it difficult to find anything?

David Weil: You have hit on an important issue for transparency: freshness of data. Transparency policies are only effective if they provide information that users find relevant to current decisions. If information is out of date or provided in a way that users find it difficult to use, it won't take long for users to view the policy as ineffective.

An example of this is the policy on drinking water disclosure. The idea is to provide the public with information about the quality of the water they drink. The reality is that the information is often a year old. So by the time that people receive their water quality report, it is telling them about conditions that may no longer exist.


Boston: What are the elements of a successful transparency policy?

Archon Fung: Thanks for your question, Boston.

In the book, we're interested in transparency policies that provide various kinds of information to help consumers, investors, citizens, and people acting in other capacities make better choices in their lives. Perhaps the most common example is nutritional labeling - pick up any package of food, and you will see all kinds of information that may (or may not) help you decide whether you want to eat it. There are many, many other examples of transparency policies.

For a transparency policy to be successful (in protecting public health or getting manufacturers to produce more healthy offerings, in the example above), it must have two main features.

First, it must be politically viable so that the regulation doesn't get hollowed out or undermined over time.

Second, it must provide information that is valuable to people and easily understood by them. Some transparency policies generate a lot of information that people can't get to, can't easily understand, or information that isn't relevant to choices that they actually face.


Melbourne, Australia: I have watched from afar the problems the U.S. has in a case like Iraq and keeping the American public informed. I also have experience from my own intelligence background in the dilemma faced with being forthright with the community. You guys truly are in a no-win situation, but should be comforted by the fact that we look up to you. Do you think too much media is detrimental to getting the job done?

David Weil: Your question gets at the many different applications of the word "transparency" (and why it means different things to different people). The transparency you are raising is about the right to know--what we consider first generation transparency. These are policies like the Freedom of Information Act that provide the public with information about government decision-making. The dilemma here is the tradeoff between democratic governance and the need to keep certain information off limits because of intelligence concerns. We are currently seeing this debate in so many ways in regards to the war on terror and I think a growing view that we have pushed things too much in the direction of secrecy.

A second application of transparency--what we call targeted transparency--is using information disclosure as a tool to achieve public goals. In fact, this type of transparency has mushroomed in use in recent years. For targeted transparency to work, the policy must be focused on users of information and on what they need to know in order to make better, more informed decisions. Everything from corporate financial disclosure to nutritional labeling to reporting on toxic chemical emissions fall into this group.


Princeton, N.J.: But surely even if you think the Bush administration is am aberration, on balance there is not enough transparency in all levels of government. Whether it's the mayor's brother-in-law with the contract for the new library or the governor's girlfriend with the low-interest state loan or the firing of federal prosecutors because they are going after your party, it's better to see it than hide it.

Archon Fung: I generally agree with the sentiment that more information is better than less, but we shouldn't be lulled into thinking that disclosure will be enough to solve many complex public problems.

In political campaigns and elections, for example, there is a large amount of disclosure around contributions, lobbying activities, and now earmarks in bills and laws. But the amount of money in politics has been on the rise for many years, and will continue to increase despite the publicity.

I think that it is important for politicians to disclosure their sources of revenues and activities, but it won't be enough to reduce the influence of money in lawmaking.


Arlington, Va.: It is easy to explain to the public open government issues that affect their daily lives (matters that affect the environment, safety, community issues). Much harder to explain are complicated issues related to historical materials and archival matters, issues that require some context.

Consider for example presidential records, which are much in the news these days, given the recent articles about the proposed Bush Presidential Library and open government legislation. Few people stop to consider the fact that the National Archives, which runs the statutorily-administered Presidential Libraries, does not represent itself in court. Lawyers working for the Department of Justice, in a reporting chain that goes up to the Attorney General, are the ones who speak for the National Archives in all litigation involving Presidential records.

Do you have any suggestions for how newspapers can provide the public context on such complicated issues, so that they have a better framework for understanding stories that pop up in newspapers or on the Web? A Washington Post employee once told a friend of mine who is a records expert, in rejecting his proposed op-ed, that archival issues are "boring." (I hope my saying this doesn't lead to my question being banned from this discussion.) So there are many barriers, some as simple as an otherwise well-meaning editor's gauging of reader interest.

David Weil: Excellent question--and we believe in transparency, so your question won't be banned! I think the issue in part is one of providing that information in a way that people will actually seek it out. The Web is an embarrassment of riches: there is so much information on it, the problem is finding how to parse it effectively.

In our research, we find that the key to effective use of disclosed information is thinking about how users make their choices or decisions. In the case you raise, it is thinking about how people seek information in understanding an issue or public debate. Archives will be drawn on if their is a conduit that a reader can use to quickly get to relevant information, and hone on in the kind of information that will help them think about the debate. That turns out to be a far harder thing to create than we often assume.

One of the most effective policies we have studied is a simple restaurant hygiene grading system used in Los Angeles County. It provides an "A", "B" or "C" grade right on the front window of restaurants. It is a wonderfully simple way to encapsulate complicated health inspection data into a form that a user can quickly use to make a decision. And it works! Food poisoning related to restaurant foods have been significantly reduced through the system.

We need to think about comparable ways to make information simple enough--but not too simple-so that it informs and helps people make decisions. That includes archival information.


Washington, D.C.: My agency routinely closes meetings that otherwise should be open, because under the Sunshine Act they say the discussion will involve internal procedures, budget, personnel issues and foreign policy issues. All of which may be true, but one has to suspect they also discuss other matters that should be done in open session -- yet the entire meeting is closed. Is this a common practice -- throwing in some restricted subjects to provide Sunshine Act cover?

David Weil: Every transparency policy creates incentives to game it. You certainly are citing a good example in regard to Sunshine Laws. Disclosers of information--be it government decision-makers or corporations--have interests to restrict information that they would not voluntarily disclose.

In some cases, the disclosers have been pretty successful at shutting down a transparency policy in this way. Some food manufacturers have done this with the "organic" label by making it very confusing to end users on what it actually means. Or in the area of workplace chemical hazard reporting, the system itself makes the information that is disclosed so complex that end users--workers--have trouble making use of it.

We see many cases, however, where users are well organized (sometimes with the help of organizations like consumer advocacy groups) and able to push for better or more clear disclosure. If there is not that pressure, a policy like the Sunshine act can be gamed in the way you suggest.


Boston: How can political will be influenced to require that information such as ingredients or health hazards of products be made available, when often corporations reserve this information under the guise of "trade secrets"?

Archon Fung: The issue of political will is a critical one. Often, corporations, government agencies, and others who are asked to release information to the public resist doing so. (just look at some of the questions that have come up in this chat regarding recent demands for the federal government to release all sorts of information).

So, expansions of disclosure and transparency often occur in wake of well publicized crises. Remember when SUV rollovers were in the news several years ago? That gave rise to a system of rollover ratings for cars. Expanded disclosure elements of the Sarbanes-Oxley law came in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom debacles.

But crisis is only one factor. Transparency and disclosure policies also need organized political advocates to survive and expand over time. Institutional investors, for example, have sought to maintain corporate disclosure requirements. Environmental groups have lobbied for policies like the Toxics Release Inventory which requires factories to disclose the amounts of pollutants that they emit. Community organizations and other fair lending advocates have sought to sustain and expand the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which requires banks to disclose loan information.


David Weil: Thank you so much for inviting us to participate. We hope we have shed some sunlight on this vital topic.

Archon Fung: I would like to thank the chatters and the Washington Post as well for this opportunity to participate in Sunshine Week!


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