Lessig: control transparency? No way!

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Government, Transparency | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

I doubt that Lawrence Lessig or his editors meant to set a trap when they titled his article “Against Transparency”. Nonetheless, they’ve bagged some prominent bloggers, who all assume that the piece argues that transparency can and should be controlled:

  • “Larry supplies a very cogent argument against the disclosure of too much data from Congressional members.” (Brian Drake)
  • “Naked transparency, the thinking goes, is really a push for Congress to talk its coat off…. In other words, an extremist position has the effect of simply tugging the political center closer towards openness” (Nancy Scola)
  • “He’s against transparency as the sole requirement for political reform, and he’s against the transparent dumping of data without tools for making sense of it.” (David Weinberger)

Drake, Scola, and Weinberger make broader arguments that are well worth reading, but in these sections, they miss Lessig’s point. As I read him, arguing for restrictions on transparency make as little sense as arguing that hurricanes and earthquakes should spare larger cities. And”naked transparency” is no mere rhetorical ploy, just as a tsunami warning is a rather more than suggestion that sunbathers move their towels a few feet up the shore.

(Weinberger has written at least three posts in response to Lessig. In his first piece, a careful walkthrough, he catches Lessig’s point precisely, when he writes “We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info…. We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect.” In a second piece, Weinberger both gets and misses this point . He’s correct in noting that, in warning of the catastrophe of cynicism transparency may create, Lessig is no Internet triumphalist. But, contra Weinberger, Lessig is in a sense a determinist when he argues that transparency can’t be stopped.)

Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable. Just as newspapers have failed to restrict Google News and Craigslist, and as the recording industry has largely failed in its legal and technological efforts to restrict file-sharing, efforts to restrict transparency will fail as well:

In all these cases, the response to the problem is to attack the source of the problem: the freedom secured by the network. In all these cases, the response presumes that we can return to a world where the network did not disable control.

But the network is not going away.

He has serious concerns about transparency, but he spends not a word arguing that it should be restricted. Instead, he seeks

a solution … that accepts that transparency is here to stay–indeed, that it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear–but that avoids the harms that transparency creates…

More about this later, but puh-leeze note that Lessig’s point is that transparency is inexorable, not that it can be restriced.

Lessig: “Anti-corruption transparency” is inexorable; cynicism is not.

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Ethics, Transparency | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Lawrence Lessig’s recent “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government” in the New Republic, has generated controversy and comment, in part because it has been misread as an argument that information on political and financial influence should be restricted rather than released.

This post summarizes the parts of his article that pertain to the current government transparency movement and his cautions, criticisms, and remedies. Later posts will summarize some reactions from Carl Malamud, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, and others, and then offer my take.

Focus: “Anti-corruption transparency”, which …

Lessig is concerned with one one specific kind of transparency: projects intended to reveal improper influence or outright corruption, e.g. by correlating incentives provided to legislators, such as campaign contributions, with the their votes.
Transparency is good when information is provided in usable form to those who are able to use it wisely, e.g. the miles per gallon ratings which guide individuals as they buy automobiles.   Consumers can benefit from “mpg transparency” without much effort.

… misleads us because we don’t pay enough attention.

In contrast, benefitting from what one might term “anti-corruption transparency” requires a long attention span.
But people, often quite rationally, limit the attention they devote to interpreting information. Indeed, politics has become the art of exploiting short attention spans, “tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze”.

So, in too many cases, we jump to the conclusion that money has bought a vote…

Unfortunately, what others call “connecting the dots” is the path of least resistance.. For instance, a journalist or an opponent highlights that First Lady Clinton opposed the Bankruptcy Bill in 2000, that soon to be Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from credit card and financial services firms later that year, and that she voted for the bill in 2001.  Although there are many reasons why she might have switched her position, “[e]veryone … ‘knows’ just why she switched, don’t they?” We connect the dots.
Lessig argues, in contrast, that “[a]ll the data in the world will not tell us whether a particular contribution bent a result by securing a vote … that otherwise would not have occurred.”
Anti-corruption transparency is problematic because of “its structural insinuations–its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always”.

… and become cynical about government, and that’s bad.

It is already the “opinion of the vast majority of the American people, [that Congress] sells its results to the highest bidder”, and anti-corruption transparency, “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations”, will just make this worse. He wants to to reduce this cynicism.

But this transparency can’t be stopped.

But we will not find the answer to our problems in a Luddite counterattack: “The network is not going away…. [T]ransparency is here to stay–indeed, … it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear….”

Instead, let’s restructure campaign finance.

Instead, the solution is “[a] system of publicly funded elections [which] would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money…”. “Qualified candidates” would be provided with a publicly funded “grubstake”, then permitted to raise additional funds from citizens up to a low cap. $100 per person per cycle.
This will increase people’s trust in Congress “by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results”.


See also these noteworthy reactions from around the web:

The power of shared awareness, pt 1 of many …

Posted: December 1st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics, Shared awareness | Tags: | No Comments »

Steven Clift:

the honest truth is that people have more influence when they generate new public opinion online. I saw this in E-Democracy.Org’s MN-POLITICS e-mail forum way back in 1994 and even more so in our local forums – http://e-democracy.org/if . Why do these spaces work? They have real voters within political jurisdictions communicating in public. This freaks out many elected officials because they can see it and they know the media does too.

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p. 163:

The military often talks about “shared awareness,” which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding. If I see a firebreak out, and I see that you see it as well, we may more easily coordinate our actions – you call 911, I grab a fire extinguisher…. This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows somehting, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows.

I’d add: when I know that you know that I know, I also know that you’ll be able to hold me to account – you know that I saw the fire, and can judge my action or inaction in that light. (I read recently that participation in social networking regarding politics also increases people’s propensity to write letters to the editor – one civic version of helping to “put out the fire”.)

Dealing with the pachyderm in the public participation process

Posted: March 18th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Democratic businesses, Ethics | Comments Off on Dealing with the pachyderm in the public participation process

We expect that the citizens who show up will feel a sense of entitlement. What if we don’t take that at face value?

Can we talk about what’s going on?

The previous post buried the most important point. Consider:

  1. In public, the planner suggested that public participation was effective and worthwhile.
  2. In private, he disclosed that it had little impact on government.
  3. The difference between the public and private views is huge, but few people reading these words will be surprised.

So why is it difficult to discuss the value of a participative governance in a particular context?

Planners, consultants, government officials and others cant be sure what to make of the role of the particular citizens who show up.

Who are these people?

The previous post suggested that there is a general expectation, at least for PR purposes, that the citizens wishes be honored and even implemented. But its easy to argue against that. Who, after all, are the particular citizens who show up?

  • Government officials, themselves either directly elected or specifically responsible to elected politicians, can ask: how can these folks claim to represent anyone other than themselves?
  • Developers, who have money, time, and reputation on the line, can ask: what stake do these folks have in the outcome?
  • Planners, with their training, analytical tools and data, and specific professional responsibilities, can ask: what expertise do these folks bring to the table?

And yet government officials, developers, and planners are all supposed to treat the citizens as their superiors. (And consider that some of the criticisms offered from the floor would never be tolerated with such outward good humor if the roles were reversed.)

Lessons from democratic businesses

Businesses that attempt to run on democratic principles have to confront both of these problems: theyve got to find ways to make participative governance work not just once, but over and over and over again, and they are generally structured so that participants in the process have vastly different expertise, face different risks, and come from unique and distinctive roles. What can we learn from them?

This will be an ongoing theme, so lets start with just a taste. Worldblu recently convened a roundtable of democratic businesses to consider lessons learned. What emerged thats most relevant to us is that democratic business processes work best when all participants

  • Feel accountable, not entitled
  • Are comfortable with transparency
  • Recover from their mistakes quickly and with grace
  • Understand their role in making the organization perform

How to placate support?

So lets forego the temptation to placate the citizens who show up for our public process, or put them on a pedestal, and ask a different question: what are their specific responsibilities, and how can we help them fulfill those responsibilities?

The house always wins: the ethics of participatory planning?

Posted: January 15th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics | 3 Comments »

At a public participation workshop a few years ago, I met a planner who ran the participation team for a large city. He spoke eloquently about working with citizens and with government on various, at times controversial, planning challenges and led us in some remarkably realistic exercises.

He took pains to point out that his group was advisory only — they had no role with the city government to enforce the results of public participation. So I asked him, privately, how these participatory planning sessions influenced city government; he smiled ruefully, and admitted that officials often paid very little attention to them.

I don’t think this is unusual, and it led me to consider who “wins” in participatory planning:

  • Planners and facilitators often do: it can be stimulating to prepare for participatory sessions and great fun to run them;
  • Politicians and other government officials may: they are seen listening to the people, and, if the project results are popular, they win big; if not, in the event that lack of follow-up is noticed, they can always argue that events have made the planning results outdated and impractical;
  • Developers and other project sponsors may: if the bridge, hotel, or shopping mall gets built, even with substantial changes, they profit, and they can generally pull out if it seems likely that they won’t;
  • But what of the “citizen participants”? They invest their time and often their energy and commitment, but at best it’s a gamble. Perhaps their concern will be addressed, perhaps their requests will be incorporated in the final design, but often, of course, they won’t.

As a wise gambler knows, the house always wins. If you play the slots in Nevada, even if you win from time to time, each pull of the lever on a $1 machine costs you, on average, around twenty cents.

An ethical casino publicizes its payout percentage, and emphasizes that gambling is entertainment not (for gamblers) a money-making activity. For a planner or facilitator, what’s the ethical way to recruit citizen participants and to structure planning workshops when we know that their invested time and energy may not pay off?

Relevant links: