Our own political life is predicated on openness. We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to enquire. We know that the wages of secrecy are corruption. We know that in secrecy error, undetected, will flourish and subvert.
—J. Robert Oppenheimer. Encouragement of Science, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1951.
Transparency in government is essential because it allows the detection of error; it exposes the growth of tyranny; it holds public servants accountable to the law; it draws attention to needed changes in the law; and it makes corruption impossible.
Technology should be used to implement radical transparency. Everything anyone does, says, or writes while holding government office ought to be automatically published on the Internet. Freedom of information laws are laudable, but a better approach is for there to be complete, continuous disclosure so there is no need to apply for information. Government officers (cabinet members, senior bureaucrats, legislators, judges, senior police, etc.) should be expelled from the public service and heavily fined for meeting, emailing, or telephoning each other, lobbyists, developers, bankers, industrialists, or anyone else with an interest in influencing their actions, unless those meetings are recorded and a transcript published on the Internet.
Some people will object that such radical transparency ignores the right to privacy of public officials. However, the word private has no application to public service. Nixon’s misfeasance only came to light because of the recordings he made of his conversations, but how many politicians get away with their crimes to the detriment of their constituents because they do not record their conversations? No doubt, under radical transparency, there will be many scandals resulting from trifles. However, as these will tend to deter the corrupt, foolish, foul-mouthed, bigoted, and lewd from running for high office, it should be considered as a plus. Simply put, the best public servants are dull dogs of exaggerated integrity and probity.
One of the biggest problems in government is the profligate expenditure of public money. One way to check this abuse is to ensure that all public accounts are made public. This should be done via a hierarchical presentation on the Internet that shows all money that has been spent in the previous year, month, or week. This should be in the form of real-time queries of the government’s own accounting systems rather than prepared accounts.
The first item shown should be a figure (to the cent) for total government expenditure for the period, broken down into the departments of state. Then, when you click on a department, the department’s total expenditure to the cent should be shown, broken down into its sub-departments. Then each sub-department should display its total expenditure to the cent, broken down into further sub-units. This should continue until individual payments for salaries, computers, electricity bills, etc., are revealed. There should then be a hyperlink to the invoice and a detailed explanation of the expenditure. Payments to contractors should clearly show what that contractor did, including photographs of his work. Weekly pay packets to state employees should link to a description of each employee’s job, and show what time they logged on and off each day, and what they achieved, hour by hour. The system should be linked to security cameras so that the public can see if he is not at his desk, or is doing something other than working.
Although this may seem administratively burdensome, modern technology allows vast amounts of data to be automatically created, linked and published in real time on the Internet. The only people who would find this process inconvenient are those who take government money and offer little or nothing in return.
National security concerns
Exceptions to disclosure laws on the grounds of national security should be minutely particularized in legislation. Then, when a bureaucrat or executive officer wishes to withhold some information, his request should be decided by a judge holding the appropriate security clearance. The judge’s reasons, with necessary omissions, should be published, like any other decision, on the Internet.
When one contemplates the devious activities conducted by errant democratic governments (the Suez fiasco, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Bay of Pigs, etc.) or by despotic governments (the murder of millions in gas chambers, the torture of political prisoners, disappearances, gulags, killing fields, concentration camps and the like), it is evident that no country can ever have too much transparency in areas related to national security save only those that touch upon tactical dispositions or technology.