The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.

—Thomas Jefferson. Rights of British America, 1774.

A government is forced to be honest if it operates under radical transparency. Every subterfuge dies at its very conception, because the would-be deceiver realizes that no one will be deceived. It is for this reason that the executive and bureaucratic officials should be forced to operate under the full glare of public scrutiny. This should be achieved by remedial legislation of which Freedom of Information Acts are just the embryonic beginnings.

Bureaucrats eternally resist transparency because of mistaken loyalty to the department they work for; it is mistaken because their first loyalty ought to be to the people they serve. To counter this tendency, structures must be put in place to show them where their loyalties lie. An excellent example has been provided by the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which includes the following provision:

Whenever the court … issues a written finding that the circumstances surrounding the withholding raise questions whether agency personnel acted arbitrarily or capriciously with respect to the withholding, the Special Counsel shall promptly initiate a proceeding to determine whether disciplinary action is warranted against the officer or employee who was primarily responsible for the withholding. The Special Counsel, after investigation and consideration of the evidence submitted, shall submit his findings and recommendations to the administrative authority of the agency concerned and shall send copies of the findings and recommendations to the officer or employee or his representative. The administrative authority shall take the corrective action that the Special Counsel recommends.

Laws like this, which penalize government officials for ignoring transparency laws, have the effect of transforming a culture of secrecy into a culture of exaggerated openness. This law points in the right direction but is lacking in particularity and leaves it to officials to decide the fate of other officials who have broken the law. The guilty officer should be charged and go before a jury, which should decide both guilt and punishment (within minutely particularized guidelines). The punishment should range from a stiff fine to lifetime expulsion from public service. This may seem harsh, but a free country should not tolerate public officials who act arbitrarily or capriciously.

The legislature

It should be a sacred stipulation in the constitution that all debates in the legislature should be open, except when some measure submitted to their consideration by the executive may require secrecy; and that effectual means be adopted for their publication in course, and to facilitate an early and general circulation among the people. This will prove an efficient and salutary check on the members, by enabling their constituents to form a just estimate of the characters of those to whom they entrust the powers of legislation.

—Nathaniel Chipman. Principles of Government: A Treatise on Free Institutions, 1833.

All debates and proceedings, including committee proceedings, should be televised live to the Internet. The votes of legislators should always be formal—never by show of hands—and these should be published on the Internet. All data should be available in archives freely accessible to the world over the Internet.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove