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Tuesday, May 02, 2017

transparency and Trump

I want to briefly plug my forthcoming book called The Transparency Fix: Secrets, Leaks, and Uncontrollable Government Information.  It extends and reshuffles writings I've published on transparency over the past decade or so. Among the problems with book publishing is the long lead time between submitting a manuscript and publication, and the results of the 2016 election requires at least some comment. Thanks to my editors at Stanford UP I was able to include a short epilogue extending the book's thesis and analysis to the election and President Trump.

More recently I published a brief essay in the public administration journal Governance about how Trump's version of populism and transparency's populist impulses collide and separate (and last I checked it wasn't behind a paywall). The easy answer is that Trump's populism excludes or is likely to curtail the basic assumptions of modern open government. This is what advocates maintain, and they're not wrong -- it's very difficult to imagine the current administration maintaining even the Obama administration's commitment to the traditional release of government documents. (Debates about the Obama administration's compliance with open government norms are complicated and highly contested; I discuss them in the book.)

That is by way of introduction to another remarkable document from the Trump Administration, released last week, entitled "President Trump's 100 Days of Accountability." (See also his op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend.) Transparency has come to occupy a key position in the definition of "accountability," and of course the latter days of the 2016 campaign focused especially closely on (allegedly) lost government emails and the use of a private email server. But the president's notion of accountability speaks not of transparency but of returning power to the "American people." He is accountable by definition because he represents the people who had previously been shut out of government -- those whose interests and voice had been suppressed by and within the federal "swamp."

I'm less interested in the bullshit here than in what Trump's shifting use of accountability says about transparency. His supporters don't seem to mind Trump's efforts to decrease the flow of government information, despite the frequent assistance that Clinton should have been "locked up" at least in part because of her private email server. This shift could mean two things: First, that his supporters don't actually care about transparency. Hypocrisy! Of course, this allegation could be turned against Hillary supporters who were willing to overlook her email server or diminish its importance after they had no doubt shouted from the rooftops about Bush administration secrecy a decade earlier and Trump's secrecy now. Hypocrisy is a right answer, but also a boring one and it might merely be symptomatic of something else.

So, second, Trump is revealing that transparency is itself a component of a populist conception of governance and skepticism about the state; and, except for those advocates who are focused on the issue as a preeminent administrative norm, transparency is not in fact something about which there is a broad political consensus at the margins. In the abstract, we all agree that an open government is better than a closed one. But, if pushed, we jettison abstract administrative norms. Trump's redefinition of accountability as something that doesn't include transparency is acceptable to his supporters because they don't agree that transparency is more important than the positions that Trump symbolizes and those for which he advocates. Which is a key reason why transparency, despite its seeming preeminence, always frustrates its strongest advocates.

Posted by Mark Fenster on May 2, 2017 at 03:26 PM | Permalink


Wouldn't the most important development in government transparency be outlawing undercover cops and entrapment?
So long as we have secret police like the nazis and the communists, are we really any more open of a society than they were?

Posted by: UniformedCopsObeyLaws | May 2, 2017 5:00:57 PM

I would suggest the chain of factors leading to good governance is longer than Mr. Fenster realizes. Transparency does indeed beget accountability, which begets good governance. A broader view, at the risk of sounding biblical, might go like this: Staffing policy begets professional culture, which begets adherence to process, which begets proper records, which begets transparency, which begets accountability, which begets good governance. Fastidious releases under FOIA won't accomplish much if complete records were never kept in the first place (a concept at the core of the Hillarymail scandal). Trump's background in business would make him more familiar with the first three of those links, and less so with the following ones, whereas for law prof types the familiarity, and therefore emphasis, would be the reverse.

I would guess this is a case of identifying the weakest link in the chain; a chain is not made stronger by fortifying any other link. Clearly, the voting constituency behind Trump believes the weak link is in culture and staffing, and not without reason. Consider the airport runway meeting between Clinton and Lynch, or the Icelandic Premier's unreported conflict of interest leaked by the Mossack Fonseca hack. Neither of those would have come to light with more fastidious adherence to FOIA-like process.

Posted by: M. Rad. | May 2, 2017 8:34:48 PM

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