The Case of the Disappearing Transparency Report

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?

9 thoughts on “The Case of the Disappearing Transparency Report

  1. I’m sympathetic to your critique (and I too would like to see the full report on Norway), but I think you may be conflating two different sorts of issues:

    The passage you quoted from the report did not sound to me like a critique of transparency as such, but rather a criticism of a particular initiative that had imposed overlapping, largely redundant reporting requirements, without adequate coordination or integration into a broader agenda–coupled with the observation that overtaxed civil society groups are not in a position to respond to the huge numbers of requests they get for consultation and input.

    Your later paragraph referencing your earlier posts on bid rigging, the quotes from Elster on how transparency of negotiations can make compromise more difficult, etc. seem to be quite different. These really are more critiques of transparency as such (at least in certain limited contexts). But I actually don’t think either of the specific examples you mention, particularly the second, really has much to do with the kinds of initiatives OGP is supporting.

    Just to underscore the point that these two lines of criticism are quite different, it certainly seems possible that one could be strongly pro-transparency and still criticize the OGP (or other initiatives) for redundancy, lack of coordination, and excessive administrative cost. Likewise, even if those problems were all eliminated, one could still argue that transparency has perverse effects.

    • But aren’t “overlapping, largely redundant reporting requirements, without adequate coordination or integration into a broader agenda” evidence that transparency is being pursued for its own sake? If the analysis had begun with an analysis of why is more transparency needed and what problems it will address would the result still have been overlapping, redundant requirements etc.?

      • It seems to me that it’s possible to pursue transparency as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, and still do it badly.

        My larger point is that it seems to me there’s an important distinction between two kinds of costs that transparency requirements might impose: (1) purely administrative or time costs, which may seem trivial in isolation but which, as the quote from the report suggests, can be substantial in the aggregate, and (2) social costs associated with ways that people can exploit transparency for undesirable ends. The only real observation I wanted to make about your post is that the quote from the report emphasizes #1, but the concerns you raise later in the post focus on #2. I’m not sure how applicable those latter concerns are to the OGP initiatives specifically.

  2. Pingback: The Case of the Disappearing Transparency Report | Anti Corruption Digest

  3. Hi there – writing on behalf of the engine room, sorry for the confusion here – we prematurely published this post about our thoughts on the process before the actual report went up. We took it down so we didn’t distract from the publication of the report, and we’ll repost when the report is made public which is set to be some time next week, if we’ve understood correctly. Thanks for the teaser to the blog post, and great to hear your thoughts on the report + process!

  4. I’m the author of the report, which you can find at http://www.opengovpartnership.org/country/norway/irm (the English version has been there for a while, I believe the engine room is waiting to (re) publish my blogpost for the release of the Norwegian version, and the simultaneous opening of the official commenting period.

    As for Norway, I don’t think it’s fair to say that transparency is being pursued as an end in itself. In the messy political space where these kinds of commitments are pursued and implemented, I think there’s too many conflicting incentives and relationships at play for that kind of assessment to offer much insight. Not to mention how a powerful culture of transparency confounds the dichotomy of instrumental or inherent good. Nor do I think that openness has done any harm in Norway (though clumsy implementation may perhaps limit the impact of transparency efforts).

    I’d be interested to hear if you draw the same conclusions upon seeing the full report.

    In any case, the Norway case offers a number of critical lessons for how we consider the translation of international transparency norms into international contexts, which I think is critically important to the cheerleaders you address at the end of your post. Look forward to your further thoughts.

    Also, love the blogpost title.
    -Christopher (@cosgrovedent)

  5. In light of this post (and the underlying report), I wonder how the scholarship on the shortcomings of information provision might influence the transparency movement going forward. That is, in some ways, providing too much information (on warning labels, for example) can dull the impact of the warning, as the information overload makes it less likely that users will read and comprehend the substance of the warning. Similarly, it seems, there might be a point at which too large a release of information may make it impossible to review all the information released (as might be happening with civil society organizations in Norway) or lull transparency advocates and other watchdogs in to a fall sense of security, reasoning that so long as the information is being released, everything is above board.

    If this is the case (and I am a novice on this question) it might be worth considering what level of transparency is the point before there are negative returns on information in a given country, such that the maximum amount of information is available without causing civil society to stand down or be overburdened, or creating redundancy in information disclosure. I’m not sure how one might design an empirical study to attempt to determine the right amount of information release, but if one could, it might resolve some of the issues suggested in the report on Norway.

    There is, of course, a significant concern with suggesting that there should be some amount of transparency after which the returns are not simply diminishing on the margin, but actually negative. If a country or civil society group developed a program where a specific amount of transparency was required—but nothing beyond that—it would probably be relatively easy for those in government or other entities who did not want certain information released to simply keep that information in hand until the quota or benchmark had been met for the year, thus keeping potentially damning evidence from the public eye. This possibility can and should give pause to any pursuit of the above suggestion, and I am not sure how to resolve it.

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