For the general public, transparency is a goal. It is not something that is automatically granted to us. Rather, people must actively work to attain transparency from their governing institutions, with good reasons to do so. Transparency leads to more accountability in politics, greater empowerment among citizens, as well as increased access to information on a variety of issues ranging from health to economic. For the government, though, transparency serves a different purpose. It is not simply a goal, but a tool.
Governments do not have a vested interest in being wholly see-through in the same way that the public does. They do not benefit when corruption is exposed, information is leaked about bureaucratic mismanagement, or intelligence documents are disclosed highlighting questionable domestic and foreign policy decisions. Nevertheless, governments do benefit from being perceived as transparent, and will therefore release only as much information as necessary to garner said benefits. The public should be wary of this selective transparency, and should not settle for anything less than free and open information that serves all people within a country, as opposed to just its leaders.
Politicians are constantly attempting to come across as open and transparent, regardless of political affiliation or regime type. Such efforts have been a staple of every modern American presidency, a recent example being President Trump touting about “great transparency” during the release of the remaining JFK Files in October. Even authoritarian leaders like former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe will frequently call for more transparency and accountability within their country. These pleas for openness are often disingenuous though, as it is much more expedient for a government to simply come across as transparent rather than to actually commit to it.
Governments have much to gain from being perceived as transparent. Politically, leaders can earn trust from their constituents, since openness and transparency are typically equated with positive traits such as honesty. There is also a wide array of potential economic benefits, especially for developing countries. Research indicates that countries with transparent governments are more likely to receive foreign direct investment, since businesses will typically only invest within predictable economies. China explicitly illustrated this incentive effect in October 2015, announcing in a Communist Party communique that it would attempt to “attract more foreign investors” by being more open about its commerce laws. Likewise, foreign aid and lending are often granted with conditions attached requiring the receiving country to improve open data and transparency within a given amount of time. Nevertheless, leaders in these countries will be compelled to increase transparency only to the point necessary to retain their aid. This demonstrates the crux of the issue: when leaders determine transparency levels based on their own incentives, it results in superficial initiatives that prioritize the needs of the government over the public.
One does not need to look beyond the United States for examples of this phenomenon. President Trump may have outwardly supported the release of the JFK Files, but the readers of these documents were unsurprisingly met with a wealth of redactions that hid any actual meaningful information in the files. Similarly, while the Freedom of Information Act allows for US citizens to request access to records from any federal agency, such as the National Security Administration (NSA), the US government can withhold any information that falls within its nine sweeping exemptions, such as “information that is classified to protect national security.” Consequently, while the NSA is required to provide a response to an individual’s file request, nothing substantive will likely be provided to that individual in the name of ‘national security.’
Transparency should be defined by not only action, but intent. When governments selectively disclose information for their own sake rather than to help their citizens, they are not behaving in a transparent manner. Even if the public benefits somewhat from these actions, the whole process ultimately rests on the government determining the maximum amount of secrecy on which it can still get by politically and economically. And when governments are not being as transparent as possible, society’s wellbeing is being put at risk. Transparency is not just an abstract concept; it can and has saved many lives throughout history. Accordingly, those individuals fighting for access to information and accountability worldwide should proceed in their activism with caution and skepticism. Recognize transparency for what it truly is to our leaders: a means to an end. Celebrate victories when they occur, but do not assume governments will continually share information beyond what is required of them. For this reason, we must not only ask for transparency. We must demand it.
About the author: John J. Martin is the Global Transparency Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John earned his BA in International Relations from New York University.