Who can possibly be against Sunshine and Transparency in government? Some Hillary detractors think she is. Same is being said about Jeb Bush and Scott Walker who handled their e-mails about the same way Hillary did. They have all been burnt by the insatiable appetite for disclosure of everything a public official says or does, 24/7. Like all others in public life, they’ve been victims of a good thing, pushed too far by zealots on both the left and right who think no amount of Sunshine is enough to keep government in check. Like the words from the John Denver song, Sunshine makes the watchdogs happy and high.
No violins for the beleaguered bureaucrat class here, but a little light from a whiny ex-bureaucrat who saw from the inside what too much Sunshine has done to government. That perspective gets no airing, just like the version of SAD, which no one hears about, where too much sunshine, not too little, makes it hard to function.
The most harmful effects of ever greater Sunshine are not on the careers of politicians and public employees – no one cares about them anyway — but how it inhibits the flow of information inside government; the way it makes (good) deals between allies and rivals alike harder to achieve; and (constructive) compromise more difficult to attain.
Sunshine and Public Disclosure laws are of course generally good, very good. But they have side effects not clearly labeled on the kool-aid bottle; or on all the happy good government websites. (Here is one example). In fact, we just had “Sunshine Week” (March 15-21) brought to you by Bloomberg, The Gridiron Club, and numerous press organizations. The “gridiron club”?
Sunshine and Public Disclosure laws, and their flag ship, The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and all the little FOIAs, have done their job. Public workers have been censured or fired for appalling abuses and negligence. The most heart rending are in programs like nursing home, mental health, and child protective services, where negligence, cover-ups, and under-funding are life and death matters. All manners of corruption, inefficiency, and egregious waste inside government have been disclosed and prosecuted using the FOIAs.
That said, here are some other things about Sunshine run amuck that you hear very little about:
Hacks in both major political parties, and the “non partisan” fanatics who get tax exemptions from the IRS for improving “social welfare,” bombard governments and agencies hourly with requests (legally supported “demands” under FOIAs), for paper documents, e-mails, text messages, phone records, notes scribbled on pads, recordings, reports, photographs, you name it, in search of real or imagined abuses. These items may disclose some terrible wrong doings in government, but they are also the raw materials for scandal mongering and the life blood of opposition “research.”
Too many requests (demands) for information are unabashed fishing expeditions. Some are efforts to harass public workers so they can’t get their work done; so that anti-government zealots can prove bureaucrats don’t get their work done
Then there are the cranks, trouble-makers and malcontents (working inside governments) who find the public disclosure laws highly accommodating when they want to make life miserable for a boss or a colleague they happen to despise. These include the trolls who make digging for dirt and “whiste-blowing” a hobby and fetish. (Along with those who do it for the right reasons).
These are not the worst side effects of (too much) Sunshine. The most damaging are the chilling effects on information sharing and collaboration inside government; not just across political aisles, but also among workers “on the same side,” or not on any “side,” of an issue, just seeking the right or best answer.
Too much sunshine impairs deliberation, political deals and compromise (in the best senses). It gets in the way of candor, the unfettered search for solutions, the sharing of important information up and down the chain of an organization, or laterally. Once you fully realize that (just about) anything you put in an e-mail may wind up on the front page of the newspaper or on the nightly news, or in a law suit (with or without merit), the chilling effect is huge.
Some real and imagined anecdotes: A skittish staffer who shuns e-mail fails to tell his Boss that the draft health care bill is unclear about who’s eligible for subsidies. A signal from a political rival’s staffer looking to make a deal never get’s transmitted. A governor or mayor is unprepared for a high stakes tax negotiation because the writer of the policy brief didn’t trust her paper was non-discloseable.
Bureaucrats need some cover when they’re trying to be honest with their bosses about the risks of a proposed policy; or when they float a balloon to an adversary in a delicate negotiation.
Sunshine laws have of course been a great tool for open and good government. But even Sunshine comes at a price. Like for some miracle medications, there are ways to mitigate the worst side-effects. Sunshine cast on the Sunshine laws would be a good start.