Tuesday, February 16, 2016

State capability 2.0 - How much transparency and accountability is too much?

In 2009, the Harvard Law School Professor, Lawrence Lessig authored a provocative article titled 'Against transparency: The perils of openness in government'. In the context of disclosure requirements on campaign donations, he describes the difficulty of not falling into the trap of attributing causality to every political decision if the decision-maker accepted some form of donations from those who benefited from the decision. He writes,
The point is salience, and the assumptions of our political culture. At this time the judgment that Washington is all about money is so wide and so deep that among all the possible reasons to explain something puzzling, money is the first, and most likely the last, explanation that will be given. It sets the default against which anything different must fight. And this default, this unexamined assumption of causality, will only be reinforced by the naked transparency movement and its correlations. What we believe will be confirmed, again and again.
But will not this supposed salience of money simply inspire more debate about whether in fact money buys results in Congress? Won’t more people enter to negate the default... This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something--an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence-- requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding--at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.
Once we have named it, you will begin to see the attention-span problem everywhere, in public and private life. Think of politics, increasingly the art of exploiting attention-span problems--tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze. Think of any complex public policy issue, from the economy to debates about levels of foreign aid.
This insight carries great significance in the context of recent trends on transparency and accountability that has swept public affairs in India. Over the past decade, led by the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, crusading information activists, auditors, investigators, and judges have sought to shine light on political corruption and bureaucratic complicity and cleanse public life. This, coupled with the explosive growth of 24X7 electronic news media channels, has shifted the benchmarks on transparency and accountability towards the other extreme. While largely welcome, this transformation has not been without its debilitating effects.

The most damaging effect has been its contribution to shrinking the decision-making space available and inducing a 'decision-paralysis' at the highest level of the state and central bureaucracy. It has made officials reluctant to exercise their judgement and take decisions, for fear of being accused post-facto, several years later, even after retirement, of having caused presumptive loss to public exchequer. This has seriously undermined state capability at policy formulation level and in the execution of large infrastructure projects. The growing pile of stalled projects and decision-making delays at higher levels are just two manifestations.

All these changes have to overcome strongly held conventional wisdom and political correctness. They need to be done with great care and tact so as to not upset the delicate institutional balance that is critical to India’s vibrant democracy. They have no quick-fix solutions. No extent of lateral entry is going to resolve this. Not even change in governments and a strong commitment to good governance can easily correct the incentive distortions created by these trends. It requires introspection, foresight and leadership of an exceptional nature from all institutional stakeholders. An acknowledgement of the problem is, therefore, an essential first step to address this deep-rooted institutional incentives problem.

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