Paper Trail for Politicians?
August 7, 2005 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Do national political leaders operate with too much privacy? Barring specific national security meetings (perhaps decided as so by an elected judge) should all other meetings/calls/messages involved in running a country be immediately available in transcript/video/audio to it's citizens? I guess this question is aimed at democratic type governments. The theory is that these leaders are put in power by the populace, but normally operate without much of a public paper trail, hindering accountability and public access to the truth.
posted by parallax7d to Law & Government (9 answers total)
Do national political leaders operate with too much privacy? Well, yes and no. This is kind of a broad question.

Many countries already have something along the lines of a Freedom of Information Act which determines what types of government communication must be revealed to the public. That wikipedia article has a nice overview of some ways different countries have gone back and forth over the issue.

Personally I think information transparency is a lovely idea, but it would be impossible to get anything done if EVERY piece of communication had to be a matter of public record. It would make any sort of negotiation practically impossible and it would have a serious chilling effect on a government's ability to research or question or discuss possible plans.
posted by bcwinters at 8:43 AM on August 7, 2005

Yeah, this question seems to be agenda-based rather that truly inquisitive. How would you suggest that people answer this -- is there a possible proof of a specific answer to the question?
posted by delfuego at 9:41 AM on August 7, 2005

To add to bcwinters' point, it would also create an unimaginable bureaucracy. Look at our false starts at recording and organizing our own lives via technology. To graft a distribution system on top of it (so that the right people could get the right oversight data, a la a FOIA request), and to assign this to an existing department (frought with all the usual issues: bureaucratic drift, issues of oversight, etc. -- I'm starting to sound like a Reaganite!), just doesn't sound like a workable plan.

To me, it resembles the term limit frenzy of the last decade, or popular outcry against "pork" spending that accompanies every new budget. Politics isn't pretty -- sometimes you get career politicians, sometimes you get backroom deals. But on the whole, it works. Don't get me wrong, transparency is great, and let's increase related laws like protection for whistleblowers or enforced bid-gathering.

At the end of the day, if you put cameras and microphones in politicians' faces 24 hours a day, and you're going to end up with the result you'd get from doing the same thing to anyone else. That result is reality television, and I think that's reason enough to avoid it. :p
posted by electric_counterpoint at 9:52 AM on August 7, 2005

Vast amounts of information are generated every day in any large government. Much of it should be not be disclosed for privacy purposes - an application for a passport, a complaint about denied eligibility, approval of social security, a medical examination at a Veteran's Administration hospital, etc. And as for national security, given the (tens of? hundreds of?) millions of documents that are classified by the Department of Defense and the State Department and the CIA and others in the U.S. government, every year, exactly how many (tens of?) thousands of elected (how?) judges would it take to review and approve each document?

Consider the cost of recording and publishing ("immediately"?!) every conversation (phone, face-to-face) of every bureaucrat in every unit of a government [ignoring the privacy issues, above]. And what would it cost to provide transcripts as well?

Having noted those problems, I do agree that some additional transparency would have net benefits, but this needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. For example, I don't think it's unreasonable for Congressional staffers to have to record and (and have published) the names of members of the public to whom they speak or write, with specified exceptions (whistleblowers, for example). That might help address the disproportionate power of lobbyists in Washington, for example.
posted by WestCoaster at 9:54 AM on August 7, 2005

Best answer: I don't think this would work like you think it would.

As a first approximation, the general population isn't going to be paying much attention to such details, because frankly most of us have better things to do with our time than read boring reports or transcripts.

On the other hand, interest groups have strong, direct incentives to monitor what the government is doing in as much detail as possible and as promptly as possible. Further, they can pay people to suffer through great piles of the boring stuff looking for nuggets of useful information.

State legislatures tried some of this from the 60s through the early 90s, with moves to increase "transparency" by opening all committee meetings and so on to the public. I'm too lazy to go get cites, but the consensus that emerged is that these changes mostly just made it harder to ignore the relevant special interest groups. The consistent fantasy has been that people in general will use this information to keep tabs on their legislators, but that just doesn't happen; what happens is that groups use the increased ability to monitor to make sure that people they've "bought" stay bought.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:18 AM on August 7, 2005

Response by poster: Hehe, there is no right answer to such a broad question, but your answer certainly makes sense. I guess it wouldn't be that productive!
posted by parallax7d at 11:31 AM on August 7, 2005

I agree with the general tenor here that immediate release is a problem. To me the real issue is that information has to come out eventually. That includes top secret information of all types, it might even include private information of individual citizens, although that would need to be thought through carefully. The White House Tapes are an astonishing and valuable record.

Something like a ten, twenty and forty year track - nothing, no matter how super secret it is, can ever remain secret longer than 40 years. Perhaps you do it the way the old US copyright worked, you place a bit of information into a 10 or 20 year protected category when it is created, one at a time you can request that the period be extended. Destroying information can be the one and only capital crime on the books - maximum sentence reserved only for real shred fests of course.

I think the idea that this would be a bureaucratic nightmare is silly. All of this information is already organized by somebody somewhere. Further, there are lots of researchers who would willingly take on the task of going through information for their own projects, the only cost to the government would be the student loan financing.
posted by Chuckles at 12:32 PM on August 7, 2005

I have worked in a Minister's office and seen the day to day operations that make a democracy work, and I can unequivocally say that the thought experiment proposed above is absurd, grounded in unreality. In the first instance, the practical objections are already well put. Try defining when a conversation is private business, when is it relationship building, and when is it ‘business’? Impossible. Conversations that relate to political manoeuvring against the opposition party, how could they be winnowed out? Couldn’t.

And much of politics between a politicians office, the bureaucracy and vested interests is a matter of sensitive negotiation and the development of arguments and ongoing relationships. Generally the system works OK, and it couldn’t work if all of those discussions were exposed to the harsh light of oppositional scrutiny from other political parties or unfriendly journalists.
posted by wilful at 6:07 PM on August 7, 2005

90% of the information leaders use to make national security decisions is public domain. It isn't all available in that morning's paper, but it is available to anyone who knows how to use a library. That last secret 10% is usually so technical and complex that most leaders don't know or don't bother with the details.

The basic jist of what I'm saying is that with a certain amount of attention you can very well figure out what's being said behind close doors.
posted by raaka at 10:05 PM on August 7, 2005

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