Last week a colleague sent a link to a report assessing Norway’s compliance with its promises to the Open Government Partnership to increase government transparency. Surprisingly, given the Norwegian government is considered one of the more open and transparent on the planet, the authors gave the government low marks. What’s even more surprising is their candor in assessing the transparency movement in Norway. They suggest that transparency has become an end in itself.
My fear is that this is a trend not confined to Norway. Rather than pursuing transparency as a means to a more accountable, less corrupt government, the Norwegian case illustrates what has become all too common among transparency advocates: they have come to believe that transparency is an end in itself — to be pursued no matter the consequences.
Shortly after the report appeared on the website of the NGO Engine Room, its institutional author, it disappeared — which may mean I am not the only one who found the report quite damning. In any event, while I didn’t download the entire report before it was taken down, I did copy an excerpt from the abstract showing my fear is not fanciful:
One of the most consistent messages in interviews and focus groups [with Norwegian officials about the government’s Open Government Partnership pledge] was about how much else was already going on. For government representatives working on financial transparency or citizen feedback in line ministries, there are a dozen political initiatives for each OGP commitment, plus a few international initiatives for which they’ve already committed time and budgets. This led to a lot of doubling up, and reporting on the same national activities for multiple international fora. It also meant that few government focal points saw the value added by yet another international initiative. It didn’t bring them extra budgets or other resources. It didn’t open political doors, and they’d never heard OGP referenced in a political statement by their Ministers or party bosses. OGP came to their desk as a box to be checked. And so it got checked, but not much more.
For civil society orgs, OGP never even really reached their desk. They too are stretched thin, and almost everyone we spoke with described a situation in which they struggled to keep up with the requests for consultations and input. For those that were working issues directly relevant to the OGP action plan, the OGP offered no clear value added.
Does this passage suggest that the Norwegian government needs to be more transparent? That its government would be more accountable or better meet citizens’ needs if only it were more open? That citizens were storming the parliament’s doors demanding greater transparency? Indeed, as the report’s authors candidly acknowledge, the beneficiaries of open government, Norwegian civil society, can’t keep up with all the government is doing to increase transparency.
I cite the Norwegian experience because I think it an example of a mindset that seems to dominate much thinking about transparency these days. Transparency is a good in itself, and thus the more transparency, the better.
But of course this is not the case. Transparency is sometime harmful. It can facilitate bid rigging on public procurements and prevent the rise of political competition. It can also make it impossible to reach political deals among competing interests, for as Jon Elster has argued, when politicians must negotiate in public, the pressures from their supporters can make it impossible for them to explore compromises that would make everyone better off.
Isn’t it time that transparency’s cheerleaders recognize that open government is a means and not an end? That it is a tool, indeed a powerful one, to advance accountability and reduce corruption, but that like all tools it needs to be used skillfully and thoughtfully.
And by the way, where is that report on Norway?