Resistance to greater transparency: rational or self-defeating?

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October 30, 2015

Australian National University professor emeritus Richard Mulgan says a concern for effective government should encourage public sector managers to be more trustful of public discussion. Shutting out the public and cutting off public debate may lead to a quieter life. In the longer run, however, it is usually a recipe for poor performance.

Mulgan was speaking at the 2015 Solomon Lecture (video above), held annually by the Office of the Information Commissioner Queensland as part of marking Right to Information Day.

He outlines that many public servants remain wedded to a risk-averse, siege mentality in which disclosing information is fraught with danger.

Queensland information commissioner Rachael Rangihaeata agrees, noting the value of government transparency is well established: “Transparency is important for accountability and integrity, and in building, maintaining and restoring public trust in government.

“At the same time, there are very real concerns and misunderstandings that are holding the public sector back from realising the potential of right to information. These issues are not specific to Queensland. That is why the topic of this year’s Solomon Lecture — ‘Government resistance to greater transparency: rational or self defeating’ — is particularly relevant.

“I would encourage all Commonwealth, state and territory public servants to view the lecture by Professor Mulgan, as it critically examines the fears of many government leaders, both politicians and public servants, who resist greater disclosure of government information.”

Understanding the resistance

Mulgan touched on four main fears to releasing information: the fear of increased cost, the fear of revealing information belonging to others, the fear of inferior policy outcomes, and the fear of causing political damage to the government of the day.

“We need to better understand the reasons why so many members of government openly oppose or passively resist the open government agenda. Some of these reasons can be seen to be self-serving, aimed at protecting the power and privileges of government, with little basis in wider public values. But other reasons have more substance and can be justified, at least in part, in terms of the public interest.

“Although each fear has a more reasonable basis than is often acknowledged, they can be reduced in the light of positive evidence about the value of disclosure.

“Until public service culture genuinely embraces transparency as a core ethical value, the possibilities of more open government will remain unfulfilled,” Mulgan concluded.

Rangihaeata says the right of all citizens to access government-held information is a cornerstone for achieving open, transparent and accountable government.

“In fact, there is robust evidence suggesting that easier access to information can help deliver better government services and improve outcomes for citizens.

“Queensland has made considerable progress towards a push model of proactive disclosure and formal access applications as a last resort. As Professor Mulgan concludes in his lecture, a culture of proactive disclosure is critical to achieving a more open government.”

The Office of the Information Commissioner Queensland’s role is to promote awareness of information rights and responsibilities including the understanding that greater government transparency leads to an informed community, able to participate in and scrutinise government.

A transcript of the 2015 Solomon Lecture can be found online at the OIC website.

Transparency Occasional Paper Series

Mulgan also authored two papers in a joint initiative of the Queensland OIC and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. The Occasional Paper Series examines the beneficial effects of greater transparency in the areas of practice, performance, productivity, policy implementation and outsourcing.

Rangihaeata says the latest paper, which is on transparency and the performance of outsourced government services, highlights a number of lessons for public sector managers and government.

“Referencing the latest research and evaluations on outsourcing, performance and transparency; this paper presents an opportunity for improving public sector efficiency and effectiveness,” she added.

Lessons for public sector managers include that it is generally in the public interest for information to be accessible and transparent, as it leads to insights and benefits. Recognising the value of ongoing consultation, not only with contractors, but also with affected stakeholders and communities is also important.

Lessons for governments include: listing online details of all government contracts above a certain value; strictly defining commercial-in-confidence criteria and providing independent audit of government agency compliance with criteria; requiring all major government contracts to adopt open-book accounting among contracting parties; and facilitating access to information held by private contractors that is relevant to the provision of a publicly funded service.

“Governments are now beginning to realise the potential benefits of greater transparency and accountability in public administration – that it can increase performance when delivering services,” Rangihaeata said.

“It is my hope that this paper and others in the transparency series will continue to challenge thinking and encourage the public sector to be more open and responsive to the community’s needs and expectations.”

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