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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 19:38 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 19:38 | SYDNEY

Incentives for secrecy

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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.

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6 March 2012 13:43


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 refers early on in his first post on excessive government secrecy to the fact that 'the actors best placed to change the rules have strong perverse incentives for keeping them as they are.' It's worth drawing out the details of this point a little, and there's an excellent summary of the problem in a recent report on security classification by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law:

Numerous incentives push powerfully in the direction of classification, including the culture of secrecy that pervades some government agencies; the desire to conceal information that would reveal governmental misconduct or incompetence; the relative ease with which executive officials can implement policy when involvement by other officials, members of Congress, and the public is limited; the pressure to err on the side of classification rather than risk official sanctions or public condemnation for revealing sensitive information; and the simple press of business, which discourages giving thoughtful consideration to classification decisions. By contrast, there are essentially no incentives to refrain from or challenge improper classification. After all, classification is an easy exercise that can be accomplished with little effort or reflection; those who classify documents improperly are rarely if ever held accountable—indeed, there is no reliable mechanism in place to identify them; classifiers receive insufficient training in the limits of their authority; and those who have access to classified information are neither encouraged to challenge improper classification decisions nor rewarded for doing so.

The report recommends a number of punitive measures against officials who routinely over-classify and cash rewards for those who challenge over-classification. Interesting.

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