Sunday, September 18, 2016

More on the excesses of transparency

Sometime back I had blogged urging caution on excessive accountability and transparency. Ajay Shah draws attention to an excellent paper by Cass Sunstein where he draws the distinction between transparency in the inputs and outputs of government activities and draws up the costs-benefits calculus,
Government can be transparent about its “outputs”: its regulations and its policies, its findings about air and water quality, its analysis of costs and benefits, its assessment of the risks associated with cigarette smoking, distracted driving, infectious diseases, and silica in the workplace. It can also be transparent about its “inputs”: about who, within government, said what to whom, and when, and why. The argument for output transparency is often very strong, because members of the public can receive information that can help them in their daily lives, and because output transparency can improve the performance of both public and private institutions. Where the public stands to benefit, government should be disclosing outputs even without a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act. In fact it should be doing that far more than it now does. The argument for input transparency is different and often weaker, because the benefits of disclosure can be low and the costs can be high. There is good reason for a large increase in output transparency -- and for caution about input transparency.
Sunstein quotes James Madison to make the point very powerfully,
It was . . . best for the convention for forming the Constitution to sit with closed doors, because opinions were so various and at first so crude that it was necessary they should be long debated before any uniform system of opinion could be formed. Meantime the minds of the members were changing, and much was to be gained by a yielding and accommodating spirit. Had the members committed themselves publicly at first, they would have afterwards supposed consistency required them to maintain their ground, whereas by secret discussion no man felt himself obliged to retain his opinions any longer than he was satisfied of their propriety and truth, and was open to the force of argument. . .. No Constitution would ever have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public.
More fundamentally, information about inputs cannot be abstracted in isolation from its transactional context, whose literal reproduction is virtually impossible. In the absence, a specific input is vulnerable to being grossly misinterpreted and detract attention from the issue under consideration. This risk becomes amplified in a world of high voltage media spins and trials.

Consider the example of the deliberations of an internal committee of officials who have been appointed by the Government of India to give recommendations to fix an off-set price for the oil and gas exploration licenses. In the prevailing environment where the popular norms in favour of revenues maximisation and not benefiting private companies are entrenched, officials will be apprehensive of being marked out in public as having taken an opposing view and be insinuatingly referred to having favoured large private companies (in this case, it could be one particular large private group!).

One such view could be the legitimate opinion that an oil importing country like India should instead of maximising revenues seek to increase domestic production and thereby reduce import dependency, even if it runs the risk of benefiting the private explorer if it gets lucky and is able to strike resources at low extraction costs. This view could be reinforced by recent oil market developments - weakness in the oil prices, and failures to attract interest in much larger off-shore block auctions in Brazil and Mexico. I, for one, am strongly inclined to this view, as I have blogged earlier here.

Or consider a decision involving adjudicating on the imposition of a standard on effluent discharge from certain industries. One side, popular among environmentalists, favour zero liquid discharge (everything is reused) for certain categories of industries, which has become entrenched in popular media as the socially preferred option and anything else as a concession to polluting and corrupt firms. This has also, for whatever reasons, assumed significance in light of an affidavit submitted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the Supreme Court of India. However, practical considerations and experience from elsewhere would show that this is prohibitively expensive and may not be a prudent choice. But supporters of this view face the possibility of being branded as corporate stooges and vilified as corrupt. 

More fundamentally, any public policy decision involves an exercise of weighing of public costs and benefits, at least some of which are realised over long durations and also involve significant private benefits. Complicating matters further, it is virtually impossible to make estimations with great accuracy and often times the realisations are way off from the original estimates. In such a complex decision making environment, it is important that decisions get taken after examining all dimensions and sides involved through a most open and liberal deliberative process. It is inevitable in such deliberations that people take positions and make arguments which would evolve, even change diametrically, along the process.

Making all this public, with the attendant risk of insinuating extracts quoted off context finding its way into a public media debate, would invariably affect the openness of the deliberative process by making officials reluctant to be on record with such views. For example, in the case of the debate on effluent discharge, at the least, the sceptics of the zero discharge would have played the critical role of steering the decision somewhere to the middle of the spectrum. They would have helped avoid populist extremism in the choice of effluent standards, and balance the requirements of environmental protection and economic growth.

It is for this reason that the US Freedom of Information Act provides for exempting privileged communications within or between agencies, including deliberative process privilege, from its jurisdiction. India's Right to Information Act however does not have this exemption. And its effects have been not to benign. Given that the 10th anniversary of the RTI Act just got over, it may be an opportune moment to revisit its provisions and refine them. Unfortunately, the political courage required for this may not be very forthcoming. 


Karthik Dinne said...

Trust is the word.

In contexts where there is reasonably high trust between people and institutions, the argument for re-balance between transparency and nakedness can be seen as legitimate.

In contexts like India, with low trust, where there is still 'lack of transparency' even in aspects that should have otherwise been transparent, the argument for a rebalance away from nakedness, even if reasonable doesn't seem legitimate.

The decision for such rebalancing depends on context which is often a debate needing technical expertise of the relevant context. In low-trust contexts, with widespread collusion and cronyism, such nuances are hard to communicate. They get brushed along with the others.

While this skepticism may not be correct but it is understandeable.

Gulzar Natarajan said...

Karthik, I understand that line of reasoning and agree with you. But, we have swung from one bad equilibrium to another. And, as you say, any effort to get out of this populist equilibrium (as against the earlier cronyism eqbm) is very difficult to communicate effectively... but if we remain entrapped, we have to suffer the consequences...