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Cut secrecy down to a minimum

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This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

COMMENTS

5 March 2012 18:25


This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Paul Monk is a founder, Director and Principal Consultant of Austhink Consulting.

Secrecy is a kind of dead weight on sound and accountable government, in much the same way that excessive and irresponsibly incurred public debt is a dead weight on the effective functioning of our market economies. Secrecy should be cut back to a minimum. The question is how to bring this about when the actors best placed to change the rules have strong perverse incentives for keeping them as they are.

Over-classification of documents occurs not only in the dramatic arenas of strategic intelligence and diplomacy, but in those of budgetary and fiscal affairs, of public policy deliberations more generally and of administrative and legal affairs.

We tell ourselves we have open societies and 'responsible' governments and even tend to think that relentless media scrutiny holds government to account. The truth is that secrecy and classification have been increasing relentlessly for decades and, like borrowing and spending, seem to increase regardless of which side of politics is in office. Both these trends are a dry rot within democratic capitalist polities; none of which seem able to rein them in. We should lead the way in heading in the opposite direction.

The case for keeping secrecy to a minimum is not new. Like free trade theory, it has been around for some considerable time. Lord Acton, famous for remarking 'All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely' also declared, 'Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity'.

This maxim, of course, has to walk on two legs: reduction in secrecy and a high calibre of public discussion and deliberation. Arguably, what we have seen over time is a kind of vicious circle in which secrecy has increased in tandem with loss of confidence in the calibre of public debate and the wisdom of political leaders. We need to find a way out of this vicious circle.

This is not an anarchist call for the ransacking of government files, in the manner of Julian Assange. WikiLeaks has raised the issue of whether the unauthorised and anarchic acquisition and leaking of government records is legally or ethically defensible. I don't wish to embark on that debate. I believe it is a distraction from a much more important debate about how to enhance the quality of political and public deliberation while drastically reducing secrecy.

If public policy is sound, it must be possible for the grounds of such policy to be made public without caveat and to withstand public scrutiny. We should not be left guessing, as we too commonly are; and deploring the evasions of politicians and their minions. Surely that is what 'responsible' government ought to mean, even if special pleading by constitutional lawyers might urge us to settle for less.

Photo by Flickr user DrJohn2005.

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