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‘The shady side of sunlight’ – a reply to Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen

Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen‘s paper “‘The shady side of sunlight’” for the Annual Conference of the European Group for Public Administration tries to argue why transparency is bad and problematic.

His view seems to be based on two main arguments:

  • If there is more transparency, government will be demystified and people become cynical.
  • If there is more transparency, the media will search for mistakes and make government/administration impossible due to overscandalisation.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to write a long and balanced reply that should take the same size as the paper, but I was kind of surprised to hear from an academic that if people knew how things were in reality they would be shocked and start distrusting government. Even if this may be empirically true, trust based on ignorance is not something that is in any way wishful.

All academia and science could be said to be problematic if you follow this line of thought: We try to describe and explain how and why things are as they are; academic research, not least on political processes and administration, is thus contributing to the demystification of democracy, government and administration and would thus by definition be problematic.

Yet, even if I leave this more polemic line of reply , Grimmelikhujsen’s argument still stops the thought process at a crucial point:

If governance is demystified, if we realise that it doesn’t work in an ideal way, we can try to make it better or at least try to build systems that take account of imperfectness. If, thanks to more transparency, we see that mistakes are made or crucial facts are ignored or undue influences have happened, controlling forces such as institutional watchdogs, the media, the opposition, the public etc. can intervene before these mistakes become law or a practice. Path dependence makes that it is much more difficult to change thing years later than they are if discovered early on, and transparency can be a way to prevent that problematic developments become unchangeable facts.

I agree in some way that demystification through transparency may be problematic if it leads to apathy but it can be good if it leads to positive change. Maybe that is the weaker side of some (but definitely not all) advocates of transparency, i.e. that they don’t think too far beyond transparency as a good in itself up until the question how positive change can be done. The article could have juxtaposed examples in which more transparency actually lead to positive changes and situations where it lead to disillusionment and see what the conditions are for transparency to work in some situations for positive change and not in others.

But naturally, and this takes up the second core argument of the article, change is not something most public administrations are made for and thus any intervention from the outside, whether by traditional media channels or new ways, is a disturbance for the working of institutions and officials (cf. the second argument). For them, having more transparency and revealing mistakes, biases, ignorance, subjective judgements etc. to the outside world, followed by “scandalisation”, is an evil and they develop a natural fear because they often lack the systems to deal with these outside interventions properly.

If institutions have been designed so that they function best under conditions of intransparency, any sunlight thus creates “chaos” and can lead to a view that transparency is the actual problem and not the initial institutional design and the subsequent working culture.

What the article doesn’t ask or show is whether through more systematic transparency – and I’m not arguing for absolute transparency – one would (have to) get to a culture of transparency where it is excepted that (some) mistakes are made, that these can be discovered both from the inside or the outside and that these can and should be corrected, independent of where reasonable criticism has come from. Where reasonable outside interventions are not regarded as an affront but as helpful corrective, transparency is not a factor that leads to more inefficiency but to more efficiency and effectiveness.

The situation described in the article in which more transparency leads to more scandals revealed by the media reflects, in my view, a transition phase in which only some places have become more transparent or have become newly transparent, and so journalists and the public start digging at these places to find the newly accessible “gold nuggets”. But once this initial cherry-picking has ended, more transparency could also mean that the focus of big media will be on the big scandals (as they should) while the small mistakes or flaws may be dealt with by a more narrow crowd and self-corrective dynamics.

Public institutions and officials would learn to deal with this once they have passed this transitory phase and the institutions have been properly redesigned. If we look into countries like Sweden or Finland with much more systematic transparency systems, they have not become overscandalised societies but ones in which a higher level of transparency is part of the institutional system and thus not problematic for the functioning of this system.

Finally, what the article also ignores is that distrust in institutions exist also where they are intransparent, and scandalisation also happens when administrations are less open. For me there are two questions following from this:

  • The first is whether one favours diffuse distrust based on intransparency or whether one prefers more transparent systems in which there is a possibility to detect concrete mistakes and failures and where there is thus a possibility to correct them properly.
  • The second is whether one prefers a society in which small mistakes become scandalised by tabloid media or new media because these small mistake seem so special in a mystified governance system or whether we get to a system in which mistakes are accepted as regular imperfectness and the real focus is thus on the real scandals such as systemic fraud or corruption.

Demystification is thus a necessary step towards our ability to make better governance, both regarding input and output, and one does not have to be an advocate of radical transparency to see a value therein.

I had hoped the article would have taken up such questions but by relying heavily on the arguments of demystification and scandalisation it misses the most interesting part of a debate that for me is about finding the right institutional designs to make transparency a win-win both for the governing and the governed.

4 Responses to ‘The shady side of sunlight’ – a reply to Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen

  1. Pingback: More subsidiarity yet less democratic control in EU matters? | Polscieu

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