ORONO, Maine — Participants at the fourth William S. Cohen Papers Forum, held Friday at the University of Maine, never decided just what government transparency should be in the Internet age.
Amy Fried, associate professor of political science, however, did offer the small group attending the daylong seminar, “The Promise and Problem of Transparency,” a glaring example of what it wasn’t.
In researching a book on the history of polls and market research in politics, she found in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., some declassified documents from 1942. One showed the results of a poll about West Coast residents’ attitudes toward the Japanese less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The other was a War Department memorandum that discussed the resentment white landowners felt toward Japanese farmers. The policy that led to the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans and the seizure of their property was based, in part, on these documents, Fried said.
“Look back and see what happened when we didn’t have transparency,” she said. “The rationale for internment was national security. Looking at this evidence, it was based on something very different than the one given by government officials. Without transparency, politicians were able to graft a rationalization onto what we now know was a very bad decision.”
Cary Coglianese, who served as chairman of a nonpartisan Task Force on Transparency and Public Participation convened by OMB Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group and a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, gave the keynote address.
A lawyer who specializes in the study of the regulatory process, Coglianese called for “reasoned transparency” in an age where government information is readily available on the Internet but can be difficult for the average resident to understand and interpret.
“We have a culture of openness and public disclosure due to the Internet,” he said. “WikiLeaks has taken us to a new level, but the leaking of government information is not a new phenomenon. Even if we had an administration [in the White House] that didn’t trumpet transparency, we’re going to know a lot more about what’s happening in government because of that culture.”
WikiLeaks is a nonprofit media organization whose goal is to bring important news and information to the public, according to information on its website. WikiLeaks claims to provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to journalists.
That culture of openness has helped create what Coglianese called “fishbowl transparency,” where massive amounts of raw data and the rules and regulations every government agency follows are available online.
“What we need is the disclosure of reasoned explanations, sound explanations that show why decisions got made the way they did,” he said. “Fishbowl transparency doesn’t exclude reasoned explanations. The governing process may improve more from reasoned transparency than from fishbowl transparency. Modern technology may give us more noise when what we really need is better music.”
Cohen, who donated his papers to the university, did not attend the event, but sent a letter to participants. The former U.S. congressman, senator and secretary of defense said the lessons learned from the Watergate scandal caused him to argue that an “open and more transparent government is the only way to earn the trust of the American people.”
The event was sponsored by the University of Maine, Fogler Library, Max Kagan Family Foundation, William S. Cohen Center for International Policy and Commerce, Maine Humanities Council and Bangor Daily News.