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July 11, 2006

Government, Transparency, And The Backseat Driver Phenomenon

Carol Schwartz had an outstanding op-ed in the WaPo yesterday that I caught too late to comment upon yesterday. She writes:

Yes, I helped deny a quorum to mark up the D.C. Open Government Meetings Act [editorial, July 1], and I make no apologies for doing so. The ability to deny a quorum is a legal tool -- akin to Congress's filibuster -- available to Council members as they go about their job of serving District residents. In this case, my purpose was to protect them from irresponsible legislation. (And it worked, somewhat: After twice being denied a quorum, the committee chairman finally presented a substitute bill that at least reduced from $1,000 to $100 the fine for three committee members discussing business outside an open meeting and eliminated the criminal penalties.)

Nonetheless, my using a perfectly legal tool to try to bring about a better law was labeled "disgusting and cowardly" by this newspaper -- quite strong words. Considering that The Post has a vested interest in getting this bill passed, its statement didn't surprise me. After all, Post representatives helped write the bill. And of course a newspaper wants unfettered access to all government meetings. The Post's support for this bill is both self-serving and a conflict of interest. I find its intimidating tone and bullying tactics to merit the same strong words it used on me: "disgusting and cowardly."

What is Ms. Schwartz talking about? Interestingly enough, the same thing Bill Keller and the NYT have had their Hanes UltraSheers in a twist about for the past few years, transparency in government: the idea that ordinary citizens have the right to see, review, and discuss the inner workings of government.

On the surface, this sounds like a dandy idea. After all, America, she is a democracy, no? We The People are in charge and our leaders serve at our pleasure and under our direction. They serve us, not the other way around.

But how workable is this grand theory in practice? Ms. Schwartz describles some of the real world problems with sunshine laws:

With this legislation, no consideration was given to the fact that the ability to hold some meetings out of the public eye can work to benefit the public. Take the rent control issue, for example. In an effort to reach a compromise that would ensure that we protect our residents without forcing landlords to stop providing rental housing, closed meetings were held to see if the parties could reach a compromise.

If we had been required to make those meetings open to the public and abide by the stringent notice requirements, the parties would not have been able to negotiate effectively without feeling that they had to censor themselves. We wouldn't have the rent control bill we now have, one that has the support of both renters and landlords...

...Anyone who watches our numerous open meetings and endless public hearings knows we are capable of doing some yelling and screaming. But not being able to freely and candidly discuss issues among ourselves on occasion will inhibit our ability to get things done on behalf of those we represent. I don't want to pass my colleagues in the hallway and be able to discuss little more than the weather without worrying that we are breaking the law. For us to be unable to talk -- not vote, not act, but talk -- is insane.

Anyone who wants to see how politics really works should try chairing the board of a large philanthropic and social womens' club. As a young wife and stay-at-home Mom, I often did incredibly moronic things like running for President of such an organization. I took on this challenge to overcome my fear and loathing of other women. My board consisted of about 8 elected members and several more appointees of my choice. Added to that were nearly 15 board members who represented various groups affiliated with the parent club. According to our bylaws, delegates for the affiliated groups did not have a vote as they had not been elected by the general membership. Their role was limited to liasing between their groups and the parent club.

As I soon learned however, leading a large group of women is about as easy as herding enraged felines. I was in my early thirties, easily one of the youngest women on the board. The delegates, on the other hand, were mostly in their mid-forties. In private, I often referred to them as the Black Cohosh Commandoes; an appellation that, in hindsight, I now regret. They were the most disruptive force at each meeting, endlessly questioning every decision in detail, though they never volunteered to shoulder the work or read up on materials we sent out in advance. They gave tons of unwanted right and left rudder and highjacked the agenda on the slightest excuse. After a few months of this, I abandoned my friendly, laissez-faire management style and became The Agenda Nazi, running meetings with brutal efficiency. My mantra became, "OK...let's discuss that in committee" and if that didn't work, I deployed the tactical nukes: "Why that's fascinating Jeannie! I had no idea you were an expert in 501(c) tax law. Can I sign you up to audit our Thrift Shop books pro bono this year?"

It wasn't that I was autocratic. Far from it. I started out soliciting input from anyone and everyone. But I soon learned no one was reading the information we sent out in advance to help them vote intelligently. And I quickly learned that large groups don't necessarily make better decisions than small ones. More people often generate more noise than clarity. As you add voices to any debate, at some point you begin to see diminishing marginal returns. Instead of synergy, you get cacaphony.

For me, the best solution was to do my research and advance planning in small committees formed of people I could depend on. They distilled the details into a big picture with clearcut alternatives without a lot of confusing details for the board. We reviewed it, then presented the results to the general membership and solicited feedback. This multi-layered approach was efficient, but also ensured lots of eyeballs reviewed every plan.

Sometimes (not often) new ideas came up at the general board meeting. If time permitted, we could then take them back to committee or discuss them at the meeting. The advantage, however, was that the board were already conversant with the minutae. There was simply no way the entire board could wade into the weeds and make effective decisions without having the options pre-digested and researched in this fashion. There were just too many personalities and opinions.

Another aspect that impeded effective decision-making was factionalism. Even in private board meetings with just the 8 elected members present, there was division. But that was manageable. We occasionally argued - sometimes bitterly - but by the time the general meeting came around we were able to compromise and present a semi-united front. Had those arguments (and the sometimes confidential information involved) been subject to public disclosure the results would have been disastrous - not only for us personally, but for the parties involved and for the club as a whole. Not every bad thing, nor every allegation, needs to be publicly aired. Some things are more appropriately dealt with privately, as in one case where a club member was accused of embezzlement (an accusation which later turned out to be untrue). We were all very glad the accusation had not been aired in a general meeting. And sometimes board members - who are only human after all - made mistakes. There was no need to air every misstep in front of the entire membership. We often found that even tiny issues became incredibly politicized due to personality conflicts and old grudges between board members. The rancor from even tiny misunderstandings can fester and generate ongoing tit-for-tat exchanges between rival factions, who then eagerly look for excuses to play "gotcha". This is just another reason transparency isn't always a good idea.

People need to be able to do their jobs without constantly looking over their shoulders in fear. They need to be able to take moderate risks. They need to be able to admit mistakes freely without fear of leaving themselves - or their bosses - open to political retribution. But complete transparency exposes government officials to precisely the kind of scrutiny that causes government employees to cover up their misdeeds. They won't come clean with even minor transgressions for fear their names will end up splashed all over the local fishwrap to settle some longstanding political score.

L'Affaire Plame should provide an object example of why complete transparency in government isn't always such a great idea. If Joe Wilson had concerns about how intelligence was being used, he should have taken them to the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence, as the law provides. And even if, as the husband of a career CIA agent, he wasn't smart enough to know the law (and that is highly doubtful) the Times should have.

But because Joe Wilson and, by extension, the Times insisted on full transparency and a national debate, a CIA agent's name (whether she was covert or not at the time) became world famous. Whoever revealed her name, whether it was a government official, a member of the media, or someone in the intelligence community (and let's not forget that the leak started there) undoubtedly should not have done so. But people behave in predictably human ways, for predictably human motives that never change. Government is a uniquely human institution, and we institute rules to constrain human impulses and channel them appropriately. When those rules are circumvented, as happened repeatedly in Plame, the results should not surprise us.

The agency itself got a black eye, and so did the administration. And it turned out, in the end, that Joe Wilson hadn't really been honest in his accusations. His wife, for instance, had been far more involved than he led the public to believe, the Iraqis had been far more interested in acquiring uranium than he led the public to believe, and the President's statement that Iraq was trying to acquire yellowcase was based on many more sources than Wilson led the reading public to believe. That is, if we can believe the British Butler Report (which the Times stubbornly keeps concealing from its readership) and the intelligence services of several foreign powers. But hey - why listen to them when we have the word of a discredited hack with a grudge against the Bush administration? If only some of this transparency would make its way to the front pages of the New York Times.

As this post suggests, when whistleblowers DO follow the law, Congress is quite capable of alerting the Executive Branch and exerting its oversight role. And as Rep. Hoekstra observed, though his intelligence whistleblowers alleged that several programs were not being disclosed to Congress, his investigation in fact found one - which has since been briefed. This suggests that the system does, indeed, work and that the President does not feel he is above the law.

Jimmy Carter, in last week's Post, also called for more transparency in government via more expansive use of the FOIA. Anyone who has ever filled out a FOIA (or had to respond to one) very likely had the same response the Spousal Unit and I did this weekend. Our blood alcohol levels may never be the same. I thought McQ had the best response:

Here's what he bases his criticism of the US government on:
This is understandable when the U.S. government uses at least 50 designations to restrict unclassified information and created 81 percent more "secrets" in 2005 than in 2000, according to the watchdog coalition OpenTheGovernment.org.

Question: What happened between 2000 and 2005 which might require more secrets be kept?

Anyone?

Hint: what happened between 1941 and 1945 that probably required the same sort of thing?

So on it's face, this is a rather suspect statistic, isn't it? War, secrets, go figure. Might drive that percentage up a tad, eh?

Look Mr. Carter, if you want amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which is supposedly what your piece is about, great. Lay out your argument. Give us the pros and cons. Reasonable people will gladly weigh them.

But please, save your cheesy, poorly crafted and completely obvious partisan political innuendo for the next time you and Michael Moore have a chance to sit together and trade ideas.

The last thing we need in American government is more paperwork, let alone more transparency.

What we need is for the American press and for American citizens to stop and think for a moment. We need them to stop hyperventilating and become more informed about civics and the processes of responsible government. And we need for people to respect and obey the laws of the United States.

Posted by Cassandra at July 11, 2006 07:50 AM

Comments

"And I quickly learned that large groups don't necessarily make better decisions than small ones."

Indeed, as demonstrated by economist Joseph Schumpeter, they reliably make worse ones, more slowly, as a predictable trend.

This was his main explanation for the failure of Marxist economic theory. As you recall, Marx had predicted that the increasing power of conglomerates would eventually lead to the monopolization of every industry by a single, giant provider that had all the necessary wealth and power to prevent or absorb competition. This was to lead to the collapse of capitalism.

The rise of unbeatable monopolies never happened, and Schumpeter -- in the early 20th century -- wondered why. On examination, he discovered that the reason was that small organizations could make better, faster decisions as a rule. Thus, in spite of lack of wealth and power, they could outmaneuver the powerful, rich giants time and again, cutting out for themselves niche markets and sometimes even supplanting the original giant.

In order to do the latter part, however, they had to increase their scale to the point that they became less capable of good, fast decisionmaking. Thus, new small companies could compete against them.

Posted by: Grim at July 11, 2006 09:46 AM

I can't find a single thing to disagree with in this post. I live in D.C. and served for 15 years on the board of a private school. And there I learned what you did about group dynamics and the need to work through committees and the never ending efforts of reformers to divorce power from responsibility.

Too late I read the work of Bion who noted that any group not tasked with a specific, defined mission will break into two factions paranoid about the other.
(You're also on the mark about Wilson and the press.)

Posted by: clarice at July 11, 2006 01:46 PM

Thank you Clarice :)

I just discovered another reason to oppose transparency - Karl Rove and his minions cleverly hid the word "describles" in my post, hoping to make me look like an idiot...

Posted by: Cassandra at July 11, 2006 02:12 PM

Add this one to the sunshine collection.

AUSTIN — Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is suing to keep secret the details about his investigation of indicted former House majority leader Tom DeLay.

The Houston Chronicle filed a request under Texas' open records law in March seeking vouchers, hotel and airfare receipts, budget documents, memos and e-mails describing the expenses for the DeLay inquiry and related investigations.

Posted by: Neo at July 12, 2006 12:04 AM

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