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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Transparency and Deliberative Democracy

Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium writes at Online Opinion about a problem of transparency. Access to information often empowers a relatively small number of citizens to participate ferociously. These "expert citizens" exercise outsized influence.

For some time, smart and experienced local leaders have been dealing with these challenges, and trying to tap the new capacities of ordinary people, by organizing large-scale “deliberative democracy” initiatives. Typically, these projects involve large, diverse numbers of people (“going beyond the usual suspects” is a common phrase), and create environments where citizens compare notes on their experiences, learn more about the issues, and talk through what they think government should do. Some of these efforts also build in opportunities for action planning, so that citizens can decide how they want to contribute to solving public problems (in addition to making recommendations for government).

Transparency can enrich deliberative democracy, but not replace it. We need larger numbers of people to be involved in public discussions, and we need those people talking with each other, not just to government. Without initiatives and structures that will produce that sort of participation, transparency will simply give more information to journalists and active citizens who are trying to expose government misconduct and misjudgment, champion tax revolts and other anti-government measures, and oppose decisions and policies they don’t like.

It is of course beneficial to expose the errors and transgressions of public officials – there is truth to the favorite quote of transparency advocates, Louis Brandeis’ 1914 pronouncement that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But while transparency makes government cleaner, it won’t necessarily make it better. By itself, transparency doesn’t change the arms-length relationship between citizens and government: it just gives more ammunition to those who are inclined to throw stones.