Talking about public disclosure of information


Writing in the Boston Globe, David Weil and Archon Fung dive into the new world of transparency and examine “a new idea of what public access to information really means.” While Weil and Fung don’t directly approach the topic of political information disclosure their analysis still resonates with the ongoing debate over transparency in Congress and in our political system.

Transparency policies are intended to create greater choice among consumers by providing the right kind of information in the right kind of format. The nutritional label on your can of soda gives you a good indication of what you’re putting in your body. A newer form of disclosure that provides important and digestible information is the voluntary disclosure of a product’s carbon footprint. One of the keys to these policies is the accessibility of the information; it’s right there on the box or the can. Not all transparency policies are as clear as these two and often the choices involved are much more complicated than the number of carbs you want to ingest.

Weil and Fung detail three ways in which disclosure policies can be applied to better communicate with consumers (in politics: constituents).

  • Upgrade to the technology that already exists. “[I]ndividually customized information is well within reach.”
  • If the information is not easy to understand or is hidden in technical databases or government files then it is not worthwhile. “Access means starting with how people make choices and providing information then and there.”
  • Move towards a system of collaborative disclosure. “Why wait for reluctant companies to report problems to the government when individual patients, customers, and parents can share their experiences with one another right away.”

The Open House Project currently is working towards reporting to the House a number of recommendations that fall along these lines. Congress is way behind the curve in making their information accessible and so we really have to start at the first step here, and that is freeing the information from indecipherable databases and from file cabinets in remote Capitol Hill offices.

Take the personal financial disclosure forms that Members of Congress are required to file. These forms are not put online and, if you look at them, contain incomplete information formatted in an undesirable way. This does no service to constituents trying to make an educated choice on who they want to vote for.

What may be the biggest problem in political transparency are the disparate locations of all the varying forms of disclosed information. To actually follow what your representative is doing or who they are connected to you have connect pieces that often don’t fit together. It can sometimes be like connecting Legos to Lincoln Logs. When Weil and Fung say, “It’s the government’s responsibility to provide the information in a way that is useful for all of us,” the same should go for information about the government.

To Weil and Fung, collaborative disclosure is an essential element of this "new idea of public disclosure of information." Ultimately, transparency policies require that "the customer must be king." While there are already some collaborative transparency efforts surrounding congressional and government information already (Congressional Committee Transparency, Congressional Website Investigation, Exposing Earmarks, and the Justice Department document dumps) the only way that citizens can get directly involved in collaborative transparency is when all the information is provided succinctly in one place for them to digest. Think of it as a Total Information Awareness of Government for citizens. Without sufficient information the ability of citizen’s to collaborate on transparency projects is limited and thus is their ability to make informed choices regarding their individual political decisions. Repeating Weil and Fung, “Individuals can’t be blamed for failing to dig through reams of government reports to find out what they should know. It’s the government’s responsibility to provide that information in a way that is useful for us all.”