The limits of open government

Ivan Krastev says if trust in public institutions is not built on the amount of information we have, then the ideal of open government has its limits

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2013, 2:04am

A troubling outcome of the ongoing financial crisis has been a collapse of trust in democratic institutions and politicians. Can greater "transparency" - the new political mantra of civic activists and an increasing number of democratic governments - reverse this trend?

The hope is that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data and renewed civic engagement can help people control their representatives more effectively. But the idea that transparency will restore public trust in democracy rests on several problematic assumptions, primarily the belief that "if only people knew", everything would be different.

Matters are not so simple. The end of government secrecy does not mean the birth of the informed citizen; nor does more control necessarily suggest more trust in public institutions. For example, after American voters learned that president George W. Bush had led the US into a war with Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction, they re-elected him. Likewise, Italians kept Silvio Berlusconi in power for more than a decade, despite a steady stream of revelations about his wrongdoings.

Compelling governments to disclose information does not necessarily mean that people learn more or understand better. On the contrary, as soon as government information is designed to be immediately open to everybody, its value as information declines and its value as an instrument of manipulation increases. Consider how gangsters in crime movies talk when they know that the police are listening. They speak clearly and offer banalities while exchanging notes under the table. That is government in the age of transparency.

In his study of truth-telling in ancient Greece, the philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out that the act of truth-telling cannot be reduced to citizens learning something that they did not know before. Paradoxically, truth in politics is something that everybody knows, but that few dare to express.

Living in truth cannot be reduced to having access to full information. It is people's willingness to take personal risks and confront the powerful by daring to speak the truth, not the truth itself, that ultimately leads to change. Moreover, information never comes without interpretation. As the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff put it, ours "is an age in which people almost everywhere seem preoccupied, simultaneously, with transparency and conspiracy".

Contrary to the expectations of transparency advocates, greater disclosure of government information does not make public discourse more rational and less paranoid. If anything, it fuels conspiracy theories (there is nothing more suspicious than the claim of absolute transparency).

Rather than restoring trust in democratic institutions, the transparency movement could accelerate the transformation of democratic politics into the management of mistrust.

None of this is to deny that transparency in government is a worthy goal. But let's not fool ourselves by thinking that achieving it will restore citizens' faith in their political institutions.

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences