Transparency in Search of a Theory

December 06, 2016 by Mark Fenster

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Transparency’s importance as an administrative norm seems self-evident. Prevailing ideals of political theory stipulate that the more visible government is, the more democratic, accountable, and legitimate it appears. The disclosure of state information consistently disappoints, however: there is never enough of it, while it often seems not to produce a truer democracy, a more accountable state, better policies, and a more contented populace. This gap between theory and practice suggests that the theoretical assumptions that provide the basis for transparency are wrong. This article argues that transparency is best understood as a theory of communication that excessively simplifies and thus is blind to the complexities of the contemporary state, government information, and the public. Taking them fully into account, the article argues, should lead us to question the state’s ability to control information, which in turn should make us question not only the improbability of the state making itself visible, but also the improbability of the state keeping itself secret.