The Empirical Basis For Transparent Government

“Trust but verify,” Ronald Reagan liked to say.  He used the phrase in connection with nuclear disarmament negotiations with the former Soviet Union.  I think the sentiment also describes the attitude we should hold towards our own governments–federal, state and local.

Our elected representatives are, overwhelmingly, people of good intentions who act in good faith to address societal problems.  We need to trust that they are acting in good faith.  If we lose that trust we become a nation of cynics.  But taking steps to verify that our elected representatives are not abusing the trust we place in them is not inconsistent with that trust.  It simply recognizes that elected officials are human and can make mistakes, particularly if they know that no one is paying close attention to what they are doing.

My maternal grandfather, who owned several companies throughout his life, used to tell me, “Daniel, always make sure that the bookkeeper takes a vacation every year.”  Why?  Because even the best human being, left unwatched, may succumb to less than honorable temptations.  The business owner who takes the simple step of making his bookkeeper take a vacation every year (and bringing in an outside bookkeeper during the vacation period) creates an environment that reduces the likelihood of the bookkeeper stealing because he knows no one is watching him.

A fascinating article in The New Yorker, entitled “Inside the Cheater’s Mind,” discusses a number of psychological studies into why people cheat.  This paragraph from the article caught my attention as an open government advocate:

As it turns out, almost anyone will cheat when given even minor, consciously imperceptible behavioral cues. For instance, in a series of three experiments, a group of psychologists found that lighting could affect cheating. In one study, participants in a dimly-lit room cheated more often than those in a lighter one. While both groups performed equally well on a set of math problems, students in the darker room self-reported that they correctly solved, on average, four more problems than the other group—earning $1.85 more as a result, since they were being paid for each correct answer. The authors suggested that the darkness created an “illusory anonymity”: even though you aren’t actually more anonymous in the dark than in the light, you feel as though you are, making you more likely to engage in behaviors you otherwise wouldn’t.

In a way, this study merely confirms what Justice Louis Brandeis famously said a century ago: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”  The point of this post, however, is to show that there is an empirical basis for that wisdom.  That is why those of us in the open government community work so hard to promote openness and transparency in government.  We do so not because we don’t trust our elected officials, but because we understand that even the most honorable, moral individuals may succumb to the temptation to “cheat” when they think no one is watching.

So trust, yes.  But verify as well.  Sunlight is cheap.  The cost of darkness is not.

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