20 May 2009
A few weeks ago my friend Aaron Swartz wrote a blog post called Transparency is Bunk, arguing that government transparency websites don't do what they're supposed to do, and in fact have perversely negative effects: they bury the real story in oceans of pro forma data, encourage apathy by revealing "the mindnumbing universality of waste and corruption," and lull activists into a false sense of accomplishment when occasional successes occur. It's a particularly powerful piece because Aaron uses the platform to announce he's done working on his own government website (watchdog.net). The piece appears to have caused a stir in government transparency/hacktivist circles, where Aaron is pretty well known.
On looking back at it I think Aaron's argument (or rant, more accurately) against the transparency websites is not very strong: indeed, data overload, apathy, and complacency are all dangers these efforts face, but that shouldn't have come as a surprise.
I had two other responses particular to my perch in academia. First, there is some good academic research showing that transparency works, although the evidence on the effectiveness of grassroots watchdogging is less strong than the evidence on auditing from e.g. Ferraz and Finan on Brazilian municipalities (QJE 2008, working paper version) or Olken's field experiment in Indonesia (JPE 2008, working paper version).
Second, my own work and that of other academics benefits greatly from these websites. I have a project right now on the investments of members of Congress (joint with Jens Hainmueller) that is possible only because of websites like the ones Aaron criticizes. I think this paper is going to be useful in helping watchdogs understand how Congress invests and whether additional regulation is a good idea, and it would be a shame if the funders of these sites listened to Aaron and shut them down.
I do agree with Aaron that professional analysis may be better than grassroots citizen activism in achieving the goals of the transparency movement. Sticking with the example of the congressional stock trading data I'm using, I suspect that not much useful watchdogging came out of the web interface that OpenSecrets provides for the investments data. While it may be interesting to know that Nancy Pelosi owns stock in company X, it's hard to get any sense of patterns of ownership across members and how these investments relate to political relationships between members and companies. This is what our paper tries to do. It takes a ton of work, far more than an investigative journalist is going to put in. We do it because of the rewards of publishing interesting and original and careful research, and also because these transparency websites have made it much more manageable: OpenSecrets.org converted the scanned disclosure forms into a database and provided lobbying data, and GovTrack provided committee and bill info, as well as an API linking company addresses to congressional districts. Most of the excitement around these websites seems to center on grassroots citizen activism, but their value to academic research (and the value of academic research to government accountability) should not be overlooked.