transparency is not enough

In a recent focus group conducted by Lake Research Partners (and cited in this report for the Campaign for Stronger Democracy), one participant said: “I don’t want to just watch it happen…I want to do something about it.” He was arguing that transparency–disclosing information about the government–is insufficient. A transparent government may still be beholden to wealthy special interests; knowing the gory details won’t enhance one’s trust, confidence, or willingness to participate. Lake Research Partners concluded that the public wants accountability, not transparency.

In a preliminary discussion of these results that I attended, Ellen Miller from the Sunlight Foundation insisted that transparency is a necessary precondition of accountability. Maybe, but it is not sufficient. If you are angry when politicians take money from wealthy interests, then knowing that both major party candidates accepted millions will only disempower you. It won’t change anything.

So we need accountability–but what does the public mean by that? Other research suggests that Americans don’t want a system of carrots and sticks for performance. They think of “accountability” in more personal and relational terms. Famous individuals who behave badly should be punished. Leaders should share our values and motivations. We should feel that we know or could know them personally. In a nation of 300 million, that either means mediated relationships (observed on TV) and anecdotal stories of public shame and punishment–neither of which we should trust–or it means fundamental structural reform. Campaign finance reform would help. Decentralizing power would give many more people opportunities to know and work with public officials. In practice, that could mean granting more power to school boards and juries.

Note that I have shifted–deliberately–from transparency to accountability and from there to active participation. I don’t believe there is any substitute for that.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.