Full disclosure: The perils and promise of transparency

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Full disclosure: the perils and promise of transparency
Archon Fung; Mary Graham, David Weil.

While many governments today are covered by broadly defined right to information laws, citizens do not have the legal recourse to information in the hands of private organizations.  The authors discuss a phenomenon they call ‘targeted transparency’ in which the private sector can be mandated to release certain set of information to the public.  They discuss targeted transparency laws in the US also draw on a wide array of case studies to analyze under what conditions such laws could be effective in achieving the socially desirable goals that they were created for.

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In reaction to accidents in which SUVs toppled and injured the passengers, lawmakers in the United States created a law mandating manufacturers to provide detailed technical information that could be used to calculate the probability that cars would topple.   The authors argue that legally mandated disclosure of this information forced car manufacturers to redesign cards to be safer.  As in this case, there are many other examples of governments requiring the private sector to disclose certain well-defined sets of information to the public, typically in response to a well-defined goal.

Unlike right to information laws that are broad, ‘targeted transparency’ requires the disclosure of specific information, but even this can have far reaching consequences in making private actors transparent.  The book provides a clear illustration that the demand for disclosing information from the private sector is not new – and that it has well defined legal precedents.  While this book discusses it in the US context, the lessons from it are applicable much more broadly.

By analyzing 18 such cases, the authors argue that not all cases of targeted transparency achieve their goals.  They argue that information has to be complete, relevant, and comprehensible to ordinary citizens for it to be effective.

Often, information that is disclosed is very complex (e.g. engineering parametres of cars, accounts, etc.) and most people will not be able to make sense of the details.  In this context, it is critical to convert it into easy to comprehend metrics that most people can use.  For example, safety standards can be converted to star ratings.  In this context, they argue that if corporations provide information in open formats, others can use it and produce reports that are easy for citizens to understand.  For example, technically knowledgeable people can craete apps or websites that demystifies information.

Another advantage of open data in this case is that third-party applications can provide this information to people at the right time and place.  For example, information on restaurant hygiene can be provided in apps like Yelp, while people are searching for restaurant options.

Overall, this book can raises important issues and provides useful perspectives for those of us who are thinking of ways to make the non-government sector transparent.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.