After my Wikileaks post, I’ve found myself in a wide series of debates, both online and off about the importance about the ethics of whistle-blowing, the brokenness of ‘the system’, the aftermath of the leaks, the motives of media and so on. It’s been invigorating, actually -> certainly one positive for me from Assange’s actions (which I still consider unethical). Some things I have learned through the process:
- I can love the outcome of a situation, and still consider it wrong.
- The system *is* broken and should change. Assange and I would argue about how it should change.
The thing that most had me realizing how broken the system is, was seeing people cheer on Assange’s threats to drop an information bomb if he was to be arrested. Assuming this is a serious threat, being properly reported by media, it is unambiguously blackmail. Un-am-big-u-ous-ly. For reasons related only to Assange’s self-interest. Even if it’s for a spurious date rape accusation. I can understand running from the law for reasons of personal safety -> but this is an entirely different game. Again, even as I enjoy the thought of some hoity-toity public servants and cronies shaking in their boots over having their transgressions being outed for the world to see, I still think Assange is doing wrong though perhaps for the right reasons. But enough about how not to bring transparency to our systems of government. Here are real, ethical actions you can take right now to bring more transparency to society.
- Understand the origins of secrecy
The current system relies on a bargain between the political wing (people who are voted in office) and the bureaucratic wing (people who advise on and implement public policy) of government. The political wing is accountable to the people – partly through elections, but also by representing constituents needs at the respective house of assembly. In general, the political wing is big on platform but low on information about how the system actually works. The bureaucratic wing, other than speaking ‘truth to power’, has the responsibility to implement public policy even if it considers it the wrong thing to do. For these reasons, bureaucrats are not supposed to express opinions about policy. When they are called upon to offer their opinion, it is supposed to be fact-based and supportive of the direction that the government has deemed appropriate. In order for the relationship between the political wing and bureaucracy to work, there are rules of behavior. The political wing gets all the credit and all the blame when things go wrong. The bureaucracy keeps its mouth shut. In return, the bureaucracy gets to maintain a level of anonymity from the public. This is not an insignificant relationship. Bureaucrats can do real damage to governments by leaking information to the public without briefing the political side of things. Believe it or not, your Ministers (Prime or Otherwise) do not know everything about every little department under their control. On the other hand, without anonymity, it would be very easy for a political power to assign blame to one of their public servants. In my view, it is this ‘bargain’ that Assange (rightfully) has decided to challenge. Unfortunately, as I’ve said before, his actions will do nothing to change the nature of this relationship. It’s not the will of Wikileaks that will bring change, but instead the will of the people.
- Understand the Origins of Change
Change is happening to the relationship between the political and bureaucratic wings of government.
- policy is so complex and governments are so large that it is nearly impossible for elected officials to keep on top of everything.
- advocates and special interest groups are increasingly understanding the role of bureaucracy in developing efficient policy (this case is especially true for Canada and other parliamentary systems like Australia, U.K and New Zealand).
- representation of Nation abroad is of considerably increased interest as the world becomes more globalized.
- social media and the internet make it easier to expose the decisions/opinions/outlook of public servants.
- large government departments are able to block policy decisions (take Statistics Canada’s recent inertia on the long form census) leaving …
- politicians with a greater interest in exposing the actions/role of public servants in the failure or success of their public policies.
- it’s very easy for public servants to release (selectively) large amounts of information that is damaging to the government to serve their own private or political interests (thus undermining democracy itself).
- Understand the World We Desire
When we talk about transparency, we are not calling for a desire for more information about government. Consuming information about what foreign diplomats think about world leaders is just that – consumption of information. Of course the popular media loves the idea of Wikileaks – it means that they have a gazillion bizarre public-interest stories that will help them sell papers over time. It’s a mystery to me how this sort of information will do anything to help people in Afghanistan or Sudan – where people likely know very little about the leaks.
The world we desire is one where governments act with integrity and honesty – ie. do what they promise to do, apologize for wrong-doing, cause harm only where there is a strong justification for it, have compassion for those less fortunate, and put the huge amount of resources available to them where society will see the greatest benefit. Some of the revelations move in this direction, sure -> but ‘mega leaks’ undermine the spirit of transparency itself. Everyone needs the opportunity to be frank in their workplace from time to time — indeed, it is part of the transparency and honesty we would like to see in our society. But that does not mean we would want those statements put out in the open for everyone to see.
- Live that World
Well, duh. Be honest yourself and fulfill your own promises. The internet’s propensity to engage in slacktivism knows no bounds. The re-tweeting and liking of all the apparent wonderful actions of Assange intensely annoyed me because it made me wonder the degree to which real action was occurring. At least it paled in comparison to William Ury’s proposal to engage in an Abraham Walk. Whose assumptions have people challenged about the nature of transparency and secrecy in government? What things can you do to draw people away from their hockey and beer to think about the role North America plays in poverty and conflict elsewhere?
- Act Where There Will Be A Positive Effect
One of the downsides of Twitter and Facebook is the prevalence of the pin-up opinion. Don’t get me wrong. I love the way Twitter and Facebook have developed into a wide range of local events and talks. But the micro-blogging world focuses on Aphorism over conversation. If you think Assange is a hero, then for godsake’s tell people why. Defend your opinions in a real forum and listen to what other people have to say about it. Organize a community conversation like a World Cafe or Open Space on the subject. Create some public art, but do it to engage community. Transparency will not come from people pinning up opinions.
But most of all, do not criticize your government for its lack of transparency without making yourself heard as well. Sending an email to an MP takes about as much time as writing a post, but it’ll be 10 times more effective. Of course, it won’t increase traffic to your blog … but if this is about transparency, maybe we all need to take that hit once in a while.
What do you think we can do to make a more transparent world?