Can Government Be Too Transparent?

Is the government transparency rage overdone?   That’s a question posed in a recent column we came across in the magazine Governing.  And the conclusion the columnists provided in the column’s subtitle was certainly no less provocative: “More information isn’t always better.  Some things are better kept secret.”

It’s a question very relevant to Minnesota’s current political environment.  The stumbling, confusing, and hurried end to the last legislative session has prompted renewed calls for transparency improvements.  So it’s worth exploring whether transparency initiatives have some potentially unintended consequences.

The columnists contend that while public access to government information is generally a good thing, there are many circumstances where greater transparency can work against good government outcomes.  To support that claim, they mention higher public employee quit rates when salaries are published, abuses of private information in open records laws, and high administrative costs of responding to information requests.  Even the seemingly slam dunk no–no: the dreaded “meeting behind closed doors,” has its place, according to the authors.  As one example, they cite Minnesota’s own experience in election reform.  According to Larry Jacobs at the University of Minnesota, in the late 2000’s bipartisan, closed meeting discussions on election law reform were making progress and achieving consensus.  But once party activists got wind and threatened lawsuits to get meeting minutes published, candor evaporated and the effort essentially fell apart.

Our organization is dedicated to a mission of improving government transparency, and our research and education activities are dependent upon access to high quality government data and information.  So it may come as a surprise that some of these criticisms resonate a bit with us.

For example, take the state’s annual report of the salary and benefit costs for each executive branch employee.  Finding the salary for nearly any state employee provides a sort of fiscal voyeurism that may be interesting for some, but what kind of understanding about government is really gained with this information?  There is certainly no context to evaluate whether those salaries are competitive or justified.  In contrast, historical rates of total compensation growth on a per employee basis would offer useful perspective on the reasonableness of trends in collective bargaining agreements.  But that is nowhere to be found.

The same issue applies to other information accessible on state payments, contracts, and grants now accessible to anyone with a click of the mouse through Minnesota Management and Budget’s online “open checkbook” tool, available through its Transparency Minnesota website.  Consider the payments this tool indicates the Department of Human Services made to over 7,300 payees (many likely multiple times) in 2016 from the General Fund alone.  If one of those recipients happens to get into trouble and is in the news for some reason, this data may have some usefulness.  But does having the internet equivalent of a pile of cancelled checks really tell you anything about the efficient, effective use of tax dollars?

As for the appropriateness of closed-door meetings, that’s a more complicated matter.  The ability to float ideas in negotiations to try to arrive at compromise without fear of public reaction has its place.  But for every backroom example like scuttled election law reform there is an example like stadium negotiations which offends many citizens to the core.

One thing we say with certainty: “real transparency” combines data with some appropriate frame of reference – whether it be historical trends, cost or performance benchmarks, or some other relevant context.  Only then is the true goal of transparency – citizen understanding and an ability make judgments about the priorities, efficiency, and effectiveness of the use of taxpayer dollars – really served.  Organizations like ours try to fill that role, but the best people to do this are in government themselves.  The problem we see is that governments too often equate government transparency with data access, and stop there. 

The Governing columnists concluded, “the right to access government information should end when it leads to negative ramifications for the public.”  But who gets to make that call?  If government actions reflected just the public interest – free from all forms of self-interest like money, security, power, and influence – that ideal might work.  But as Dr. John Brandl long ago noted, government is also very capable of putting its interests and those of its employees ahead of the interests and needs of citizens.  Hence, the need for transparency in the first place.

Of course, it’s true that more information isn’t always better.  But judgment calls should err on the side of transparency and disclosure.  And if governments are worried about how citizens might (mis)use the data they provide, the best antidote will always be the context that’s crucial to turning data into information –even if it raises new questions.