Transparent this, transparent that; it seems as if labeling the public process as transparent is government’s order of the day. The fact is, the workings of government are more opaque than ever.
A representative government means we elect leaders to whom we give the responsibility of making decisions and passing laws. And in the ever-increasing complexity of modern life, those decisions and laws come at a rapid pace. But all this talk of transparency is beginning to sound hollow, invoked, perhaps, to shut up the public rather than to encourage public participation.
From multi-hundred-page budgets to the mind-numbing drone of new laws, the language and tenor of government is increasingly obscure. Take the use of acronyms. The public needs a virtual dictionary just to figure out who does what, where, and when. If the names of the bodies and organizations are deemed too long to write out in full, listing the full names at the bottom of a document or press release would help the public understand what government is up to. The frequent use of acronyms does not improve transparency, it reduces it.
Staying informed is increasingly difficult, and in this respect we’re evolving into a self-serve community. Government meeting minutes, for example, have all but disappeared. Not so long ago, meeting minutes were written and included information about each agenda topic, what it was, who said what, and what decisions were reached. Nowadays, the best we get are “action” minutes containing little information, just recounting the name of the agenda item and how the vote came out. If members of the public want to know more, such as what was actually said and by whom, they have to review the video recording of the meeting.
Video recordings comprise a complete record, but if one’s interest is in a particular item or decision taken during a three- or four-hour meeting, finding that moment means wading through the entire recording. Yes, the record’s there, but we wouldn’t call that transparency. At a minimum, the posting of a video should include a written timeline of agenda items so members of the public can find what interests them easily.
Technology, which has been hyped as the great time-saver, is actually making things harder and less transparent. Government assumes incorrectly that everyone feels comfortable reading things online and using computers. Wading through a poorly designed website for hours just to figure out the answer to a simple question is not an improvement, but a burden. Government websites, including those populated by acronyms, are all organized differently, and some are downright impossible to use. Technology has become a barrier to knowledge, and it’s getting worse.
We think it’s time for government to take a step back. Language transcription technology can produce written records of meetings; indexed and edited properly, a set of meeting minutes would be a great help to public understanding. Actually having someone answer government’s phones would be nice too, rather than subjecting the public to convoluted answering systems that make it hard to reach anybody.
Transparency is just a manipulative, feel-good word. It’s time for government to get back to reality and respect the public it serves.