Government Transparency vs. Government Security?

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Recent revelations in the United States have led some to question the American government commitment to transparency. It’s NSA spying, DoJ wiretaps and IRS targeting political non profits on one hand – and OGP and open data leadership on the other.

Many ask: “how can a government be committed to transparency if they spy on their own people?”

Some do not see any contradiction between the two.

Meanwhile, the press stalks Aeroflot flights and whips up a frenzy of fear.

Differing World Views

These recent revelations expose different points of view of how societies operate in an effective manner. It’s not so much that some people believe in more democracy and others believe in less. Less democratic regimes can be transparent while more democratic regimes can have higher levels of security. The proliferation of CCT cameras in the UK to aid in crime detection and prevention is an example of a security mechanism that imposes on personal privacy. Arguably, the UK is on the forefront of government transparency.

It’s not that transparency’s loss is security’s gain. It’s that there is a clash in the underlying logics. Transparency assumes that people are fundamentally good and can benefit from more information to make better decisions. Those in favour of increased government security believe that some people are fundamentally evil and will use information for nefarious purposes.

This conundrum is important. Recent events will help citizens and politicians to explore these important issues in depth. To find a compromise in privacy vs. security and privacy vs. transparency.

The Myth of the Legal System

How can leaders in a developed democracy condone activities such as spying on citizens? How can leaders find a legal basis for this?

There is a stereotype that finds itself into popular fiction. It’s the stereotype that the legal system is skewed to assist the law breaker. How many movies, TV programs or books have you read in which the criminal “gets off” on a technicality?

My sense is that government organizations involved in policing and security find that legal constraints hamstring investigations. That compromising on privacy can be justified because you have nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong.

Perverse Incentives?

The difficulty with giving security organizations carte blanche in investigation is incentives. Investigators have the incentive to catch and convict. To catch the “Mr. Big.”

We see this phenomenon in plea bargains as underlings “roll over” on the boss. And, ethically questionable tactics.

Transparency can add to this perverse incentive by exposing conviction and crime rates. (Although the fact of reduced violent crime is rarely acknowledged by the popular press.)

It is one of the hardest governance challenges: give public servants the proper incentives to encourage improved performance without creating perverse incentives to engage in unethical behaviour. And, institutionalizing less ethical behaviour as “legal” is the start of a slippery slope.

Trust deficit

Transparency can close the trust deficit that inflicts governments. Citizens in developed countries now have reason to suspect governments of engaging in nefarious activities. The lack of transparency about these programs and the reaction by government spokespeople has not improved trust.

UK citizens are aware of CCTV cameras.  They have the option to vote out political parties that support CCTV usage. But, American citizens, and possibly politicians, were unaware of the NSA program. This generates citizen suspicion. And, a trust deficit in government and politics.

Transparency and Trust

Let’s face it: uninformed citizens do not make the best decisions during elections. And, uniformed citizens can have opinions more easily manipulated.

Some may argue that being transparent about government security programs aids criminals and terrorists.  My sense is that these people already suspect the extent of government security.

The governance challenge then is to compare the effects of criminals having more information about security programs versus the lack of trust in government. In other words, what governance effect is there when the US Congress has such a low level of trustworthiness?


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