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When Transparency Becomes the Enemy of Accountability: Reflections From the Field

By Stuart C. Gilman and Howard Whitton

Everything is connected to everything else, as in the world of ecology and in public administration. Transparency seems to have become the new panacea for all government ills and often trumps everything else from consideration – including accountability. Transparency has become the new vogue concept in public administration.

For the authors, with a combined 60 years of field experience, transparency requires a more nuanced and analytical approach than taken by many in academia and by most in politics. While it is appropriate that academic treatments of the concept lead to tenure or promotion, our concern is that much of what has been published is not particularly useful to the practitioner. To quote E.F. Schumacher from his book, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, “an ounce of practice is generally worth a ton of theory.” For today’s practitioner, a more balanced and integrated approach to transparency is needed.

Meaningful accountability should be the primary focus for public administration practitioners and governments. Accountability is one of the “ends” of democracy. Transparency is not an end, but a useful but limited mechanism. Often the tool is viewed as an end in itself, leading to the belief in a self-generating accountability. As the argument goes, greater openness leads to greater involvement of citizens and therefore greater democracy. This greater democracy leads to more accountability. What could be wrong with this picture?

One recent story in the Economist pointed out that transparency and clarity about public budgets allow citizens “to lobby for different spending priorities” and that openness of budgets encourages lenders. Unfortunately, the article cited Morocco, Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria as models for budget transparency. Anyone who has worked in those countries would have great concerns over the accuracy and meaningfulness of those budgets. After all, Greece – with all of the scrutiny of the European Union – provided published public budgets that were artful works of fiction. From our point of view, there are three major issues that practitioners must think about in linking transparency and accountability:

Transparency as an end in itself:

gillman 1Financial disclosure systems are one of the best examples of how transparency can be used to disguise illicit intent. Good disclosure systems have professional staff reviewing submissions regularly with the authority to ask for clarification and take action in cases of non-compliance. Too many countries view the exercise of producing disclosures and making them available to the public as enough. Even well designed disclosure systems either can exclude significant information from scrutiny and public access or may release large amounts of material relying on the public to detect problems. Collecting hundreds of thousands of disclosures was the first approach by both Argentina and the Ukraine. Both countries made the documents available to the public. Citizens and the media were so overwhelmed by the amount data that the documents were useless.

A good historical reminder is that Enron Corporation’s accounts were entirely transparent. The problem was that the information provided was impossible to understand unless you were a well-qualified forensic accountant with a large research team at your disposal. Not everything significant was connected to everything else and the message was missed. After the fact, even their board of directors admitted that they could not understand the reports they were given.

Transparency that leads to less accountability:
Transparency, especially at the state and local levels, can lead to ‘the flight from accountability.” Elected officials and senior bureaucrats often find it difficult, or not in their interests, to plan beyond the short-term. Government is not a well-oiled machine and officials are understandably reluctant to take complete responsibility for something they cannot control. Transparency in government tends to drive a focus on quarterly or annual results. There is a preference for decisions that can produce favorable, verifiable information rather than long-term policies or programs that would be better but where easily measureable data is not readily available. Transparency can impede long-term planning, ensure that governments are less innovative and have less opportunity to plan.

Those favoring greater transparency argue that it leads to more thoughtful, considered policy choices by citizens. Although this position is attractive from a philosophical point of view, there is little empirical evidence to support it. As stated in David Primo’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Against Disclosure,” “once you account for everything available to voters, campaign-finance disclosure provides very little informational benefit.”

Informational benefit is what matters. There is now good evidence that detailed and finely tuned Key Performance

Indicators (one among a myriad of such measures) often leads to gaming of the system for improper advantage of various kinds, or function merely as perverse incentives to avoid accountability and responsibility.

The unintended consequences of transparency:

An exclusive focus on transparency can lead to unexamined confidence in the actions of government. Open systems do not mean that information is presented in a meaningful way or that it is accurate. The innocent assumption is that the citizen or the media will be able to detect and expose this kind of wrongdoing. First, very few citizens have the ability to analyze a local government budget. Second, there are fewer and fewer traditional media players with the capacity to do investigative work. More and more newspapers employ stringers to write stories suited to broader political agendas. Combined with the tsunami of blogs of varying (and sometimes appalling) expertise and accuracy, it makes access to accurate analysis a very daunting task. The electronic media also suffer because of talking heads that have human-interest stories as their prime focus. Complex stories that take more than 60 seconds to explain do not make good television or attract audiences of the requisite size and demographic.

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In the international context, simplistic evaluation of transparency (rather than accountability) allows governments to escape scrutiny, while others are unfairly labeled as corrupt. Organizations such as Transparency International produce indicators like the Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Due to the design of the CPI, if a country takes significant actions against corruption and has an open press it is possible that it will fare worse. This can lead to less transparency as the government tries to deal with the fall-out of an apparently worse result in the transparency indexes.

The financial costs of transparency are often not counted. Government oversight and other transparency measures are expensive. Freedom of information regimes can have significant costs. Some experts believe the Freedom of Information Act increases expenditures of almost a billion dollars. Ironically, more senior officials around the world are making it a practice to “not take notes” or at least make them indecipherable in case there should be a freedom of information request.

The U.S. federal financial disclosure system requires the hiring of over 1000 full time and almost 9000 part-time positions to do the work. The U.S. federal budget system was initially made an annual event in order to increase transparency. However, the U.S. Congress has managed to politicize the system to the extent that citizens do not understand what is being spent. The transparency control of having only “annual” expenditures conceals the real costs of projects and encourages administrators to obligate their entire budgets before the end of the fiscal year.

Conclusion:

Transparency and accountability are not the same thing. They are not even the same kind of thing. Transparency is a mechanism for achieving scrutiny of meaningful information. Transparency of government information occurs in the real world of personal and political responsibility and can lead to greater accountability, but sometimes less.

The problem with transparency as a management fad is that it can lead to distraction, complacency, perverse incentives, greater costs and loss of public confidence in the integrity of government and administration. This is true in the developed world and a nightmare in the developing world.  Transparency for transparency’s sake is of no practical value. Accountability has to be the end. Everything is connected to everything else.

 

Stuart C. Gilman, Ph.D. is a senior partner in the Global Integrity Group, which works with governments around the world on issues of governance and anti-corruption. His 38-year career includes positions in universities, government and non-profit organizations. Dr. Gilman has been an advisor for state governments and federal agencies, as well as multinational organizations – such as the World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank. He has been an anti-corruption and integrity advisor for countries as diverse as Egypt, Japan,South Africa, , Romania, Italy and the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected].

Howard Whitton is an associate of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University (Australia) and a specialist consultant in public sector Ethics and Integrity projects for governments and INGOs. Howard is a frequent contributor to international conferences on public sector ethics and anti-corruption matters and is currently a member of the editorial boards of the U.S.-based journals Public Integrity and The International Journal of Public Affairs Education. He can be reached at [email protected]

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