Secrecy and the perils of technocracy

In their most recent book, Don Tapscott and David Ticoll introduce us to the “age of transparency.” They argue that corporations and governments face unrelenting pressures for greater openness that will only increase – and that the costs of resistance far outweigh those of more proactive forms of disclosure. Of course, for many organizations this latter path points to an adaptive challenge of immense proportions.

There are also indications that governments are not only unprepared to adapt, but intent on resisting more openness. Such a claim may at first glance appear out of step with reality; during the first week of July alone, the federal government’s main portal provided more than 200 What’s New announcements. Agencies now routinely publish annual reports detailing their activities and performance, and e-government continues to facilitate online access to more sources of information and programs.

Yet all these examples are elements of a government’s communication apparatus, controlled by central agencies and filtered by political operatives to ensure as much good news as possible. While there is nothing inherently wrong with those in power wanting to be seen to be using it wisely (with an eye to retaining it), troubles mount when other sources of information – multiplying through a ubiquitous media and communications infrastructure – take issue with the government’s message.

A hostile media, a suspicious Auditor-General, or a grassroots coalition of blogging activists can help spur what‘s been called the “spin wars” that are an increasingly prominent feature of e-democracy. These dynamics simultaneously strengthen both Tapscott and Ticoll’s case and the determination of governments to resist, since the risks of self-exposure simply seem too great. The result, to paraphrase recent remarks by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, is that governments must be in perpetual campaign mode – staying on message and continuously defining it.

The danger with this approach lies less in the strategy than the system that shapes it. Governments simply become paranoid and more distrusting of scrutiny. John Reid, the federal government’s outgoing Information Commissioner, makes this point forcefully in reflecting on his tenure: “The clear lesson of these seven years is that governments continue to distrust and resist the Access to Information Act . . . Vigilance (by all stakeholders) must be maintained against the very real pressures from governments to take back from citizens the power to control what, and when, information will be disclosed.”

Reid’s views are largely supported by a U.S.-based scholar, Alasdair Roberts, who has studied access to information laws and resulting government practices around the world. His findings in Canada point to systemic efforts by government to stymie and limit disclosure, particularly with respect to matters of political sensitivity.

Defenders of secrecy (or, rather, proponents of limited openness), point to times when public interest dictates that information be withheld. National security is most obvious: Sensitive information pertaining to perceived threats and planning by governments to intercept such threats must be carefully guarded. Perhaps more contentiously, matters of performance that expose government weakness are also off limits. Security and law enforcement agencies, then, routinely tell us what they are doing right: but they cannot say, for our own good, what they may be doing wrong.

Others will say it, however – or at least make every effort to try. As a result, paranoia is reinforced.

The U.S. is clearly the epicentre of such a mindset – which, of course, owes much to the events of 9-11., a Washington-based group, has sought to reveal the significance of the shift: Almost 127 million pages of government information were released to requests in 1999; by 2004 this number had dropped to roughly 28.4 million.

Such a mindset also shapes the world’s digital future. In July, the U.S. government confirmed its intent to resist calls for more open and multilateral governance for the Internet itself (i.e. the central servers and the main source codes). Security and stability trump all else. Secrecy at home is unlikely to breed openness abroad.

Some view such trends as the beginnings of an Orwellian-inspired big brother state. A provocative image perhaps, but one that misses the mark (at least in mature democracies). Thanks in large part to the Internet, there is simply too much networking and scrutiny going on in the world to permit such overt control, and too much respect for rights and freedoms by our politicians and citizens alike.

Nonetheless, the very real danger of the present reform era is the emergence of a governing technocracy, nationally and globally, that is out of step with the sort of intelligent, participatory and responsive governance mechanisms required – not only within the public sector but across society as a whole. In place of open deliberation and collective learning, we get information control, spin and after the fact reporting. 055968

Jeffrey Roy ([email protected]) is an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa.

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