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Many social scientists believe that civil society is more dynamic and democratic when greater numbers of people are engaged in the political processes. Professor Archon Fung co-directs the Taubman Center for State and Local Government 's Transparency Policy Project, which conducts in-depth analysis on the political economy of U.S. and international transparency systems. His research and teaching aim to understand whether and how participation and deliberation can make contemporary public governance more fair and effective.
Q: Please discuss how transparency affects public confidence in government, and how that, in turn, affects political participation.
Fung: Surveys show that public confidence and trust in government is at an all time low. It started declining in the 1960s, and I think today it is much more the case than in the 1960s that secrecy is a problem for public confidence.
There is a way, however, that government can act to make all sorts of information and data that people need to make decisions in their lives more available to them through different kinds of transparency systems. And while I don't think that that will necessarily increase the trust and confidence that people have in their government, it is a way that government can use its authority to enable people to make better decisions in their lives and have more confidence in the institutions that they interact with, say with the corporations from which they buy products or the school systems to which they send their children and the like.
Q: Discuss the inherent difficulties in designing transparency systems. When are they most effective?
Fung: Let me give you an example of a transparency system that everybody will be familiar with. There is a law in the United States that requires food manufactures to print product ingredients on food packaging so that people can make better decisions about nutrition. There are many, many transparency programs like this, and they cover all kinds of choices that people face in life, from which car to buy, to where to live, to how to get a mortgage, to where to send their kids to school.
The challenge, however, is that most policy makers, and indeed most citizens, think that it is enough just to put the information out there in the public realm. However, when you create a law that floods the public sphere with more information, often times that information comes in a form that is very difficult for people to use. So the key in crafting good transparency policy is to always begin from the point of view of the person who will use that information. An example of a great transparency policy is the health department of Los Angeles' restaurant rating system. On the door of every restaurant in L.A. is a letter grade, A, B, or C and that letter grade reflects the health and safety inspection rating of that restaurant's kitchen. That is important information provided in a way that is very easy for people to use. This system is an example of one of the clearest and most effective transparency policies in the realm of local public health and safety regulations.
Many other transparency regulations are very, very, opaque. If your workplace involves hazardous chemicals, there is a federal law that requires employers and people who manufacture chemicals to keep 'material safety data sheets' that tell people all of the health and safety concerns involved with each hazardous substance. The problem is that most of these data sheets are written in a way that only a chemist or a public hygienist can understand. The intent is good - to warn people when they might be exposed to hazardous substances - but oftentimes it is ineffective because the information is presented in a way that very few people access effectively.
Q: Does the internet make civic engagement more accessible and transparency more possible?
Fung: I think the potential of the Web and other information and communication technologies to aid in civic engagement and participation is enormous, but I think that the best way to use the Web and other information technologies hasn't yet crystallized in the political sphere.
For politics, right now, I think we are in a period in which there is a lot of technology that makes it much easier for citizens to talk to one another about political issues and for citizens to talk to their representatives, and other public leaders and officials. But the real promise of that technology has not paid off yet in democratic terms. We don't yet know if and whether technology will be deployed in a way that really propels forward the realization of our democratic values of political accountability, or the ability of citizens to improve their judgment and level of information and command over different public issues. We don't know whether and how technology will be used to help people organize themselves to advocate for issues and solve problems that are urgent in their lives.
It is a very open moment, and there is all sorts of inventive experimentation going on, but I suspect that in 10 years time we will look back and many questions that are now open - in particular, what the effect of technology on politics is going to be - will be answered.
Q: What particular challenges does globalization pose to issues of transparency?
Fung: You might think that the rise of globalization and the trans-boundary flows of products would make transparency much less likely since, in the United States, the government can tell companies operating within its borders to be more transparent and to inform consumers and the public about their products. The power of government is much less - or nonexistent - in trans-boundary contexts.
However, what is happening is that a substantial amount of transparency is coming from consumer pressure on companies themselves. If you remember almost a decade ago, there was a lot of pressure on Nike around labor rights issues. One of the central demands of the activists who were concerned about Nike and other companies' labor practices was for those multinational corporations to become much more transparent about how they do business, and in particular about conditions in factories.
So we are seeing a substantial amount of transparency now come not through the governmental regulation channel, but through direct pressure on corporations themselves. In some cases you are seeing companies trying to gain a competitive advantage among consumers who care about social issues and environmental issues by becoming more transparent. One of the things they market is that they are socially and environmentally responsible citizens in the global arena. They advertise the fact that they make their products and processes more transparent.
Q. What about the impact of globalization on political transparency and political participation for guest workers and others in the context of more porous borders and migration?
Fung: Citizen participation across boundaries is a particular problem; many immigrants don't have a substantial voice because they are not citizens.
We might look to ways in which the European Union is responding to challenges and moving to create some avenues of citizen participation and voice in the context of transnational government. Much of the law and regulation in the European Union is done now through a body of European Union institutions - the European Parliament and the European Commission - and one complaint about these governmental structures is that they are not very democratic. They operate in Brussels, often times out of the public eye and out of any sort of political check and balance. Now many political leaders in Europe, and citizens in Europe, are demanding more channels of political accountability and more channels of democratic access.
Recently, we have begun to see an array of experiments in which European Union leaders are trying to create channels of access for citizens to have some voice in European Union priorities and policies. Last year there was an event called the European Citizens Consultation in which hundreds of citizens were gathered in all of the member states to deliberate about what the most important priorities in the Union were and then those people who deliberated in the member states had cross national deliberation in Brussels. So these are early initiatives that attempt to create some mechanism for citizens in Europe to have some direct say and input over European Union policies and priorities.
The encouraging thing is that many leaders in Europe recognize that there is a deficit of democracy that is created by the fact that the European Union encompasses so many member states, and that it has substantial technical and regulatory powers, but does not yet possess very well developed democratic institutions and checks and balances.
Please contact 617-495-1115 to arrange an interview with Archon Fung.