In Praise of Radical Transparency

The U.S. government collects boatloads of information that could be useful to the public. Why not share it?

Data wants to be freed.

Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

Almost immediately after a new administration takes office, it must decide on its approach to releasing information. In early 2017, incoming officials should mount an unprecedentedly aggressive transparency initiative -- above all, to disclose online, promptly and even automatically, the final products of their own fact-finding and policy-making processes.

If you are skeptical about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, you will think that such an initiative is unlikely. But hear me out. It could well turn out to be appealing to both of them.

Suppose, for example, that the Department of Transportation has completed a detailed study of what kinds of policies actually help to reduce automobile accidents. It might do that as a step toward exploring potential federal responses (as through rule-making).

Or suppose that in the aftermath of the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the government compiles data on levels of water pollution in numerous cities, as a way of figuring out whether serious problems are emerging.

Or imagine that the government has compiled information about the number of people who have been raped or died in federal prisons, perhaps to inform new enforcement programs to protect prisoners. In such cases, there is a possibility, in some administrations, that agencies will not release such information promptly -- and even that they will not do so at all.

The American people should see information of that kind. As President Barack Obama announced in 2009, the government ought to disclose such information whether or not there has been a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act. In response, the Obama administration has taken significant (and greatly underappreciated) steps in the right direction. But far more remains to be done to routinize the release of information – and to make it less necessary to rely on investigative journalism or the cumbersome process of requesting information.

There are three reasons for increasing transparency. The first is that people can often use the information in their daily lives. If Americans know more about the effectiveness of child safety seats or the costs of college, they can make better decisions. And when government discloses information, the private sector often creates innovations to make it easier to understand and use that information - helping people to save money or otherwise improving their lives.

The second reason for transparency is to increase accountability. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called sunlight "the best of disinfectants.” If the air quality is terrible in Los Angeles, if a particular university is unusually expensive, if crime is on the rise in Dallas, or if a company has a lot of recalled toys, transparency can spur change. Whenever public or private institutions have to answer to the public, their performance is likely to improve.

Disclosure often helps agencies to achieve some of their most important goals. In environmental policy, one of the most well-known examples is the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory, which was created largely as a bookkeeping measure, designed to ensure that the federal government would have information about releases of toxic chemicals. To the surprise of many, the TRI has been a successful regulatory approach, because companies did not want to be listed as one of the “dirty dozen” (the worst polluters) in their states.

More recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has taken a similar approach: It posts, very visibly on, information about recent deaths in American workplaces, with names of the companies where people died. To say the least, employers do not want their names to appear on that site.

The third reason for transparency is that it can enable the government to obtain and learn from the dispersed information held by the public. The Department of Transportation provided a terrific example just this week. Officials found a 7.2 percent increase in traffic fatalities in 2015 compared with 2014. In response, they released the raw data in open format and asked the public for ideas about the source of the problem and how to reduce fatalities. Private firms are already creating interactive tools to educate people about fatal crashes in their vicinity -- and to help avoid them in the future.

Is it realistic to think that these potential benefits might encourage the next administration to undertake a new transparency initiative? It’s true that some agencies have not been enthusiastic about moving aggressively, even after a strong push from the White House. The worst reason, of course, is to avoid embarrassment and criticism. Another reason, which should not be underrated, is simple inertia: It takes work to routinize disclosure, and in the press of daily business, people might not want to do that work.

There are also legitimate reasons for secrecy. Personal privacy must be respected, and the government should not disclose information that would compromise it (for example, people’s tax returns). If information is properly classified, it must be withheld. And because candor is important, public officials have strong reason to be cautious about disclosing communications that are part of the internal deliberative process.

With these qualifications, a strong priority for the next administration should be simple: If the government has compiled information from which the public could benefit, it should release that information -- and it should do so promptly, online, and as a matter of course.

(Corrects spelling of Justice Louis Brandeis's name in eighth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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