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Hypothetically, what benefit could closed government offer?

What would happen if we eliminated transparency from the political system for twelve months? We might actually get more sensible debate and better policy, reckons Professor Paul ‘t Hart of the Utrecht School of Governance.

Paul ‘t Hart

Acknowledging that this is a “controversial” position to take, an optimistic ‘t Hart asked the Australia and New Zealand School of Government conference:

“Is there such a thing as virtuous ignorance? I think there is. Personally, this is no longer evidence based professor speaking, this is Paul ‘t Hart citizen, I’d love to have an experiment where we remove cameras and smartphones from parliament for a year or two.

“I think it would actually increase the quality of parliamentary debate and the quality of political decision making.”

Stating that he wanted to see a more nuanced debate on the impacts of transparency on the functioning of government, he posited another two questions: What levels of transaction costs and side effects are reasonable and bearable, given the potential benefits of transparency? Secondly, when it comes to the citizen-government encounter, what is helpful empowerment?

“I’m arguing, and some of the research is arguing, well, there are significant costs or significant unintended consequences,” said ‘t Hart. His comments echo those of, among others, former departmental secretary Andrew Metcalfe, who warned of “policy advice by post-it note” at the ANZSOG conference — a position disputed by fellow conference speaker Dr Suelette Dreyfus, research fellow in Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne.

This is, of course, not a new argument. The first episode of Yes Minister, titled “Open Government”, sees Sir Arnold Robinson explaining his disdain for the episode’s eponymous concept: “it is a contradiction in terms: you can be open or you can have government.”

“You just don’t give people what they want if it’s not good for them,” quips Sir Humphrey. “Do you give Brandy to an alcoholic?”

Vested interest, integrity crusaders and transaction costs

Among the consequences that worry ‘t Hart are the capacity for well-resourced vested interests to extract information about government decisions to use for their own ends. Although regular citizens can in theory use these systems as well, he argues, corporations and lobby groups tend to be the ones who have the ability to use this information effectively.

“Maybe our transparency, though universal — everybody can go online and so on — still has the effect that some benefit from it a lot more than others,” he said.

Another impact, and one that concerns many public servants, is “this idea of watchdogs as institutional players with their own self interest in making themselves big and putting out really alarmed stories about the way the political system operates.”

In ‘t Hart’s homeland, the Netherlands, “the auditor general has pursued this kind of self-dramatisation approach. It uses this information it can extract from government, it does pretty good reports, but it then launches and frames these reports in ways that I would experience as really political and not very helpful in building citizen trust,” he argued.

“These [FOI] transaction costs are quite considerable … as a society we have to be able to ask ourselves the question, is that cost justified by the benefits.”

It also costs a lot to respond to freedom of information requests.

“The sceptics can point to the transaction costs of running all these transparency arrangements, of being a public agency in an audit society. These transaction costs are quite considerable. You don’t need to be just boss of Immigration to complain about all that money and all that time. It is a reality. And as a society we have to be able to ask ourselves the question, is that cost justified by the benefits.

“This is a whole bunch of empirical research that is just coming out now. A lot is unclear. But the studies I’ve put there suggest that yes you can have too much of a good thing. And you don’t need to be a reprobate like Sir Humphrey to argue that case. So I think that there is a reason for a bit of a serious debate.”

Transparency improves ‘interoperability’

But he also acknowledged it would be difficult to imagine rolling back freedom of information, given the public’s expectation of a right to know. Indeed, ‘t Hart admitted that, as a parent, he was very keen on the idea of greater transparency in education. Although MySchool, which allows for comparisons of educational indicators by institution, has been criticised for providing a too-limited view of student outcomes, a better quality of information would be an example of useful transparency, he thinks.

In addition, transparency helps managers by encouraging a greater exchange of information, allowing for improved interoperability and increased managerial intelligence. “The managerial driver is improved value for money through smart systems. You can make your systems smarter by enriching your data flows,” he said.

Citizens in their role as clients also want transparency.

“In a world where delivery of public services has become contestable, openness about the various competing entities has become the norm. we have created markets, markets thrive on information and information needs to be provided. We are very good at repackaging that information in the form of rates and rankings and so on and so forth. That’s a given. The driver here is about allocative efficiency,” argued ‘t Hart.

But this widespread desire for transparency also gives rise to a fourth, “Machiavellian” driver: the convenience for politicians and bureaucrats of selective disclosure or “pseudo-transparency”, in which providing more information can sometimes become a public relations exercise with little public value.

Does open government create trust?

The theory that greater openness increases trust “is not sustained by evidence”, thinks ‘t Hart.

“The more we see how the cookies are made … the more sceptical we become. Isn’t there such a thing as virtue in ignorance?”

“So at least if you’re doing it in order to increase your legitimacy, it isn’t working. That’s one argument. Whether that is an evidence based argument remains to be seen, but there is some research that seems to support this futility argument.

“There’s also the perversity argument. The more we see how the cookies are made, the more we know about helicopter trips and so on, the more sceptical we become. Isn’t there such a thing as virtue in ignorance? Maybe I do not need to know how the back office of the passport office really works, as long as the front office is decent and so on.

“Then there’s the jeopardy argument. Particularly if you have too much transparency, there’s all kinds of unintended consequences. People are busy, the transparency regime has all kinds of opportunity costs et cetera. So there’s arguments back and forth.”

Which all takes us back to Yes Minister. “But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know,” insists Bernard Woolley.

“No,” responds Sir Humphrey Appleby. “They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.