Continuing Oxfam’s conversation on the limits of transparency

A bricked-up window can’t let the light shine through. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here at Sunlight, we read yesterday’s post on Oxfam’s “From Poverty to Power” blog with interest. Titled “What are the limits of transparency and technology?” the post surveyed the opinions of three transparency advocates on whether “transparency” has been lauded inappropriately as a magic bullet for big problems in development and the achievement of other social goals.

The three respondents did a nice and careful job describing the ways that transparency is necessary to — but not by itself sufficient for — the achievement of accountable government action. As Peter Eigen of Transparency International identifies, a reductive understanding of the role of “transparent” information in creating accountability misses the critical step of discovering whether the information-producers have actually created good quality and timely information — hardly a simple or cheap thing to produce and disseminate. Rakesh Rajani points out that a superficial view of transparency fails to reference the role of formal and informal institutions within a particular social space, and that you can’t expect technology-enabled transparency to produce results without reference to local historical context. Rosemary McGee helpfully unpacks the automatic elisions people sometimes make between transparency, accountability and the production of social good. The chain linking each of these principles to the others is dependent on a whole lot of collective action — purposive action, goal setting and decision-making — that may or may not effectively exist.

Given the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, this post resonated strongly. The justification for Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion reducing the scope of campaign finance law depends in part on just such a simplistic interpretation of “transparency.” Roberts argues:

With modern technology, disclosure now offers a particularly effective means of arming the voting public with information… Today, given the Internet, disclosure offers much more robust protections against corruption… Reports and databases are available on the FEC’s Web site almost immediately after they are filed, supplemented by private entities such as and Because massive quantities of information can be accessed at the click of a mouse, disclosure is effective to a degree not possible at the time Buckley, or even McConnell, was decided.

While this sounds quite hopeful, it makes precisely the inaccurate claims that the open data advocates above describe when they talk about the superficial linkages that can be made between transparency and accountability. We’ve documented the ways that the information is, in fact, neither immediately available (due to inadequate disclosure laws) nor easy to access on the FEC site.

As the advocates describe, it is inappropriate to assess the impact of “transparency” without first asking a lot of hard and important questions about the initiative in question. This perspective throws into relief how entirely ineffective it is when institutions give lip service to transparency without actually supporting its implementation or enforcement. Take, for example, the incredible shrinking budget of the Federal Election Commission, created to police money in politics after the Watergate scandal. Even as the FEC commissioners spend their meetings in partisan bickering, the professional staff tries valiantly to fulfill the agency’s mission. But, as our colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity have catalogued, with precious little support from the budget-writers on Capitol Hill.

As for transparency advocates, let me tell you that we find it especially galling when transparency is being invoked (as a fig leaf) while other, regressive regulatory changes, like doing away with aggregate campaign donation limits, are being imposed.

In the case of the McCutcheon ruling, we have a good demonstration of how “transparency” comes to get a bad name. Even though we know the current system is far from robust, the Supreme Court, a gridlocked FEC and a hyperpartisan Congress have collectively outsourced the institutional governmental responsibility to prevent corruption to groups like us. Now, perhaps we would have some better ability to handle this if we were a large-scale government contractor — say, the size (and receiving the subsidy) of a Lockheed Martin. However, given the capacity of our non-profit transparency “enforcement” sector this does nothing more than set up the notion of “transparency,” as a whole, to be synonymous with ineffectiveness and failure.