How to Make Transparency Meaningful?

Yanis Varoufakis talks about transparency in a very simple and straightforward way. The DiEM movement he founded demands transparency in these terms:

  • the live-streaming of the entire European Council, Eurogroup, ESM Board of Governors and Ecofin meetings, and the subsequent publication of official transcripts for all such meetings
  • a full set of minutes for each ECB Governing Council meeting to be published three weeks after the conclusion of each regular meeting, and complete transcripts of these meetings to be published within two years
  • an exhaustive list of all Brussels lobbyists and a register of every one of their meetings with elected or unelected EU officials
  • electronic publication of all TTIP negotiating documents and full transparency at every stage of the TTIP negotiations.

While this may be a step in the right direction I have felt this request sufficient. A good example of that comes these days in the forms of the US senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s cabinet. The hearings are available online for all to watch and I believe live-streamed too. This (heavily edited) presentation from the Daily Show with Trevor Noah can give you a sense of what is happening (in this one example of many):

Despite the COMPLETE transparency and the fact that Betsy DeVos is clearly unsuitable for the job she will likely get it. So, clearly, in the short term, transparency is not very useful.

But if you watch a bit more of the raw footage from this hearing you will see that transparency can even become damaging. The quality of the hearing is horrific not only because of Betsy DeVos’ ignorance but also because of the way she is questioned:

The democrats are attacking her without even giving her a chance to reply … which is a shame because if they did her incompetency would shine through even brighter. The democrats are using this platform (because it is transparent!) not to hold a good hearing but to hold a public execution and to advertise their own ideas and positions (which, ironically, for the foreseeable future do not matter much). It seems that in the short term transparency can even be damaging!

I believe that for transparency to become effective we need deeper processes. Public representatives need to be held accountable over time. I would like:

  1. Everyone in these hearings to have a personal public record available.
  2. Every vote to be on record … so that anyone who supported or objected the confirmation of Betsy DeVos can be held accountable for their action.
  3. I want every senator on this committee to have an opportunity to post their positions on both education and BestDevos in advance … maybe even pubish their question in advance. Maybe even consult with their constituency in advance on the questions they would like to be asked.
  4. I want everyone who cares to, to be able to submit to public record an explanation of their positions (in writing, video, whatever).
  5. I would like the public to be able to express their position on how the senators performed in a hearing. If voters want to support the positions of Bernie Sanders, let that voice be heard and recorded.

Once you become a public representative you shoulder the burden and responsibility of transparency and unlike your personal CV (which you can edit) your transparency record will live with you the rest of your life. Your transparency record may become anasset or it may become a liability. Either way, you won’t be able to make it go away. Betsy DeVos may be mocked in this hearing, but she knows it and all she needs to do is get through it and it will be forgotten. So will the republican senators who support her.

I also believe that if Transparency is done well, politicians can learn to harness it as a constructive tool. Can we make transparency a promise instead of a threat? If we could demonsrate that politicians who embrace transparency have better careers and lives … would other politicians embrace it?

If we are using transparency to put politicians on the spot and place blame on their shoulders then it is only natural that they would want to avoid it. I believe transparency holds more profound potential to it then that.

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