Secrecy by default: How ‘performing government’ is trumping transparency

A few months ago, Sam Roggeveen from the Lowy Institute asked me to talk at a function the Institute was holding on secrecy. I said I wasn’t particularly well qualified to talk directly on secrecy regarding national security and foreign affairs, but I was happy to speak about the growing benefits of openness and of the power of ‘secrecy by default’.

The event is on Friday but there are a series of blog posts in the run up to it. Here’s my blog post – which is also up on the Lowy blog.  You can read the all the posts leading up to the event here (I recommend Paul Monk’s posts particularly).

‘Soft’ secrecy in the media age

by Nicholas Gruen – 12 March 2012 10:42AM

Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and was Chair of the Government 2.0 Task Force.

I recently took my son to the stage play of the TV show Yes, Prime Minister. One could predict the kind of plot that would ensue and ensue it did. The Prime Minister and his minions manoeuvre for advantage between each other and navigate a range of dilemmas and eventually a resolution is arrived at. Life goes on happily enough for the characters and we appreciate the bon mot that Wikiquote tells us is wrongly attributed to Bismarck: ‘Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made’.

But the decades have made a huge difference in the sensibility of the new production – which is written by the original authors of the TV series. The series ran through most of the 1980s, a period that contained its share of tumult, from the destruction of union militancy to the Falkland’s War. The series reflected bastardry enough.

But somehow the dramas were genteel, reflecting battles between those privileged enough to be in the system. Waste in government continued, powerful people and time-servers were protected when they should have been exposed and dealt with. But one could be forgiven for thinking, at the end of an episode, ‘it was ever thus’.

Twenty years on, as the moral dilemmas piled up in the stage-play, the governors conspired against the governed.

The PM and his advisors address their common problems as insiders in the showbiz that is government by framing an innocent person at the bottom of the social pile (an immigrant). The fall guy was to be taken into custody as a suspected terrorist and kept there, incommunicado, for up to a year, after which he might be deported or his incarceration repeated.

This change in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ points to the revolution our society has undergone in the way we ‘do’ government. Secrecy has always been the default presumption before the days of freedom of information and the craze for ‘transparency’. Today we are into our second generation of freedom of information (FoI) legislation, which seeks to move the default more fully to a state where information is presumptively open (subject to exceptions where the case can be made) rather than the converse.

Yet while these changes have been taking place – through the first and now the second wave of FoI reforms – government is increasingly ‘performed’. This has huge implications for the incentives operating within the system.

Today, departments assist ministers ‘performing’ government by putting their case, trouncing the opposition or launching policies. In virtually all of this, in its role of supporting the government, departments of state will gild the lily and deploy those stalwarts of managerialist euphemism. Arrangements will be ‘enhanced’ and ‘improved’. ‘Best practices’ will be adopted which, we will be told, will make us more competitive, whatever more sober reflection might suggest. This will frequently extend to the routine petty deceptions involved in ‘repackaging’ previously announced policy and the spinning of details which might otherwise invite scepticism.

And the deceptions may be perpetrated through reticence, and may not be petty. Where an officer is in possession of information of considerable import – as in the case of the defence forces during the ‘children overboard’ episode – they will be expected to be complicit with the suppression of that information. (Though ‘honesty’ gets a guernsey from time to time, I’ve yet to see ‘candour’ chosen in any government agency’s charter of ‘corporate values’.)

So routine is this today that its absence is noticed immediately and usually punished. As it was when Treasurer John Kerin replied ‘Your guess is as good as mine’ when pressed in the depths of the 1990 recession to divine when the economy would recover. As it was when, rather than the misleading simplicity of “Read my lips” Gareth Evans conceded that a promise not to raise taxes was nevertheless not a promise to freeze each and every detail of the tax maze for the next three years – only to have this reported as a front page lead headed ‘Gareth Gaffe’. (These anecdotes are drawn, I hope accurately, from personal memory.)

In an environment like this, where the prime minister stumbling on his way onto a podium can dominate the news and so have its own effect on the trajectory of an election, it has become entirely normal for departments to be involved 24/7 in the process not just of avoiding embarrassment for their minister, but of actively ‘managing’ all aspects of everything they do that has any chance of being or becoming public.

At the same time, those whose job it is to hold them to account are, for the most part, seeking to misrepresent them for the purposes of entertainment and ratings (in the case of the media) or political combat (in the case of opposing politicians).

Consider either a public servant or a department of state in this environment. What can they say with confidence that will not cause difficulty or embarrassment? This can include the most basic factual matter. If, for instance, they indicate that the department began work on some policy at a particular time, might it not be possible for some reporter or opposition politician to juxtapose this in some invidious way with what might have been done, or with something a politician has said? In such an environment all the incentives point to reticence – to silence, or to put it more starkly, secrecy as the default.

Often, media management will aim for what might be called ‘soft secrecy’, which is to say, a state of affairs where a set of facts are acknowledged, but the public and their informants, the media, are resolutely blocked from providing independent detail.

Thus there is public debate about ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ but no reporting from Guantanamo, not to mention the sites of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Thus, though our government boasted about its tough treatment of asylum seekers in the 2001 election to considerable electoral effect, it was always understood that the cameras must not get too close lest our media be awash with ‘human interest’ stories about the incarcerated. Though there were strict government instructions to prevent the media from getting close to asylum seekers in that case, very often it is quite unnecessary for politicians to issue any such instructions for such discretion to obtain.

How might we make this situation better? Let the conversation begin.

Postscript: Here are the slides from my talk.

 

 

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15 Responses to Secrecy by default: How ‘performing government’ is trumping transparency

  1. john says:

    Nicholas

    I first read the following V S Naipaul quite a few years ago, and felt at the time, and still feel, that the following quote describes the problem with great clarity.

    From “The Air conditioned Bubble: The Republicans in Dallas” in V S Naipaul, The Writer and the World essays:

    p.460
    “The poetical part at the end, about the “springtime of hope” , was less a speech, less a matter of poetry and language, than a scenario for a short documentary about multi-racial, many-landscaped America. So that at the climax of the great occasion, as at the center of so many of the speeches, there was nothing. It was as if, in summation, the sentimentality, about religion and Americanism, had betrayed only an intellectual vacancy; as if the computer language of the convention had revealed the imaginative poverty of these political lives. It was “as if” – in spite of the invocations and benedictions (the last benediction to be spoken by Dr. Criswell) – “as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed any more”.

    The words are by Emerson; they were written about England. English Traits, published in 1856, was about Emerson’s two visits to England, in 1833 and 1847, when he felt that English power, awesome and supreme as it still was, was on the turn, and that English intellectual life was being choked by the great consciousness of power and money and rightness. “They exert every variety of talent on a lower ground,” Emerson wrote, “and may be said to live and acct in a submind.” Something like this I felt in the glitter of Dallas. Power was the theme of the convention, and this power seemed too easy – national power, personal power, the power of the New Right. Like Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas, “to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.”

    To fix anything, you first need to be able to see clearly.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for that John – interesting.

    But that last part touches a nerve with me.

    Of course it sounds right that you have to see clearly to fix things. And of course it is true that the world is full of people fixing things and buggering it up because they don’t understand what they’re dealing with.

    Of course if you’ve got the luxury of choosing between seeing well and badly, who’d want to try to fix things while seeing badly. But we’re always in a fog.

    And there are lots of things that get fixed when people can’t see clearly what they’re doing. Indeed medicine consists of little else. Lots of cures are not understood, but they work so we use them.

    In my profession of economics there’s positive and normative economics. And it rolls off the tongue so easily that you have to understand the world to improve it. But the real question is ‘how well do you have to understand it?’

    We have immense difficulty understanding very far beyond the basic Adam Smith economics. And I personally wouldn’t trust much in the way of economic policy that couldn’t be explained using that kind of understanding of the economy. (I’d also include Keynes as a kind of Adam Smith of macroeconomics). And amazingly enough there’s plenty of things to be getting on with just circumscribed by that world (for instance the agenda I go on with about information and reputation, building more independent institutions for macro-economic policy.)

  3. john says:

    Thanks Nicholas

    I don’t disagree with you. I think what I meant is something like not confusing ends and means. Spinoza once wrote of such an example in his Ethics, of a man who sincerely believed that his yard had flown into his neighbour’s chickens.

  4. conrad says:

    “Often, media management will aim for what might be called ‘soft secrecy’, which is to say, a state of affairs where a set of facts are acknowledged, but the public and their informants, the media, are resolutely blocked from providing independent detail.”

    I don’t even think you need soft secrecy with the media for an incentive to remain silent on many issues. A good example of this is when Kruddy talked about “Big Australia” and actual population projections, and that Australia would reach a population much bigger than now even under the extremely unlikely scenario of zero immigration (let alone realistic lower bound figures like 80K per year). All of this is of course well known and always has been, but just mentioning it as a politician seems to get the lynch squad out. Alternatively saying nothing about it will allow it to disappear from the public consciousness, even with the slow and rather well documented increase in population.

  5. paul walter says:

    I don’t get why transparency isn’t the default.
    We discover, hidden in a couple of dark corners on the internet, that some thing to do with a Pacific nations free trade agreement is about to be conducted, amid much soft secrecy before and after.
    Nothing in the newspaper or on teev on it, hardly even a mention, for something that I would have been fertile ground for the likes of Steketee, Tingle, Davidson Gittins and the like to work over.
    This is given the possible impacts on Australian community life and people’s individual lives as they consider whether to get married, have kids and commit to a mortgage and other forms of higher purchase, as more AUSFTA type nonsenses are embarked upon by stealth.
    Why is it considered necessary to withold information from people for the benefit of a few insiders?
    Is the secrecy there because what’ll be decided will be ultimately harmful to many people but beneficial to a few others?
    Why are some allowed the information to plan ahead, but many others denied this simple right?

  6. paul walter says:

    I don’t get why transparency isn’t the default.
    We discover, hidden in a couple of dark corners on the internet, that some thing to do with a Pacific nations free trade agreement is about to be conducted, amid much soft secrecy before and after.
    Nothing in the newspaper or on teev on it, hardly even a mention, for something that I would have been fertile ground for the likes of Steketee, Tingle, Davidson Gittins and the like to work over.
    This is given the possible impacts on Australian community life and people’s individual lives as they consider whether to get married, have kids and commit to a mortgage and other forms of higher purchase, as more AUSFTA type nonsenses are embarked upon by stealth.
    Why is it considered necessary to withold information from people for the benefit of a few insiders?
    Is the secrecy there because what’ll be decided will be ultimately harmful to many people but beneficial to a few others?
    Why are some allowed the information to plan ahead, but many others denied this simple right?

  7. Paul Frijters says:

    Nick,

    I am struggling to see what you think has changed since the 1980s. Gutter journalism and point-scoring oppositions were as much part of 1980s ‘Yes Prime Minister’ UK as it is now. Politics was as much an act then as it is now.

    Has all that has really changed merely been an increase in the sheer volume and speed with which this takes place, reflecting more media outlets operating in real time?

    Compared to what era would the framing of an immigrant sound weird? The 1970s with shady involvement in Latin America, the end of the Vietnam war and the stolen generation? The 1980s with the Iran contra affair, the dirty war in Nicaragua, the Soviets playing dirty in Afghanistan?

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Paul,

    A fair point. I’m trying to point to a change in sensibility. I’m certainly not arguing that seriously bad things never happened. Perhaps the authors’ sensibility changed.

    The piece as originally drafted contained this para which was edited out – or down. 

    When the West fought its last war of survival – WWII – Churchill memorably offered these words. “be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy-we shall ask for none.” And yet, a decade after Western liberal capitalism became the unchallengeable default setting for modernity, at the first whiff of grapeshot countries which had honoured the Geneva conventions either engineered or became complicit in widespread abuse of prisoners involving ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ such as waterboarding.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that the Geneva conventions weren’t broken in WWII – but somehow the difference in the public sensibility seems dramatic to me.

    It seems to me to be worth drawing attention to and complaining about. What drives it? It’s hard to say, but the basic idea behind my piece is that at the same time as greater strictures were being introduced to increase transparency, government was becoming more ‘performative’ and that the latter phenomenon has been an important backdrop to what’s happening. I should also add that populism may play its part. Elites had much more autonomy a couple of generations ago.

  9. Paul Frijters says:

    I certainly share your sentiments, Nick, but I tend to believe the general public has never been overly fussed about torture, secret prison camps, or dirty wars. The death penalty would probably still be with us if it were up to a referendum.

    To worry about transparency and secrecy has always been an elite pre-occupation because it requires the willingness to see that things that may initially happen for good reasons turn into bad as power gets abused. To view people who are good now as potentially bad in the future if you give them too much discretion is an uncomfortably brutal view of humanity for which you need a reason to be willing to see it.

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes, I was suggesting that populism made things worse (for ponces like us who don’t think we should torture people).

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Sam,

    I’ll post your comment up here and then offer my response below it.

    The piece by Nicholas Gruen that we published yesterday was cross-posted on Club Troppo, Nick’s regular blog haunt, and it’s worth pointing to the subsequent discussion in the comments thread.

    In response to a reader, Nick mentions a section of his draft post that we agreed to omit from the final, in which he juxtaposes Churchill’s willingness to show mercy during World War II with Western behaviour in the fight against terrorism:

    When the West fought its last war of survival – WWII – Churchill memorably offered these words. “be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy-we shall ask for none.” And yet, a decade after Western liberal capitalism became the unchallengeable default setting for modernity, at the first whiff of grapeshot countries which had honoured the Geneva conventions either engineered or became complicit in widespread abuse of prisoners involving ‘extraordinary rendition’ and ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ such as waterboarding.

    I’m attracted to Nick’s broader argument that government has become more ‘performative’ in recent times, and that this manifests itself in what he calls ‘soft secrecy’. But the Churchill example Nick cites does not illustrate this point very well. After all, although the breaches of the Geneva Conventions during the war on terror have been shocking, compared to the incendiary bombing of German cities carried out on Churchill’s orders during World War II, they represent a minor lapse in just-war standards.

    In fact, for a number of reasons, the kind of carpet bombing used routinely in World War II and as late as the Vietnam War is unthinkable today. Partly that’s because technology makes it easier and more affordable to be discriminating in the use of aerial weapons. But the capacity of the mass media (and now the new media) to transmit to the world the evidence of mass suffering that would result from such tactics surely also plays a part. As a result, Western norms about proper wartime behaviour have changed dramatically for the better.

    This returns us to Nick’s point about modern government as performance. For modern warfare is increasingly a media event, where the battle for headlines and public opinion is considered almost as important as what happens on the battlefield. Modern war is in large part a public performance, and civilian casualties get bad reviews from the punters.

    As you’ve seen from my response to Paul Frijters above, I’m loath to dig into any territory which would have me saying that things were better back in the good old days. (Always reminds me of Woody Allen’s mother saying to his father in Annie Hall “Have it your own way, the Atlantic Ocean is a better ocean than the Pacific Ocean”. On the other hand, I think there was a qualitative difference between the bombings – including the atomic bomb and torture. Both events were both linked directly to broad war aims – to wage ‘total war’ and destroy the economies of the enemy in a military class between countries. And the precedent was German bombing of civilians (I think the Japanese had engaged in civilian bombing in asia but I’m unsure of that.)

    Also Truman and others were clearly morally conflicted about dropping the atomic bomb (though I doubt if Churchill was about carpet bombing German cities).

    Though what they did was incalculably worse in the scale of its effects than any ‘enhanced interrogation’ in Guantanamo or anywhere else, I still think it was more morally ambiguous than torturing people – which seemed pretty routine and was not tied to some ‘ticking bomb’ defence. Al Quaeda are a murderous lot, but I don’t think torture was a major part of their modus operandi.

    None of this is to excuse what happened.

    Personally I think both the carpet bombing of Germany and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wrong, but I think there are arguments to the contrary which I find of some persuasive power. I can’t imagine any arguments of any serious weight regarding the routine torture of prisoners.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Here’s a good illustration of the phenomena I’m speaking of. In case it’s taken down from the net, I’ll reproduce the story here.

    Lodge renovation hidden from the public as cost blows out to $4.45m, From Domain, in the Canberra Times, Tom McIlroy May 19, 2014
    Internal documents show requests for information from The Canberra Times have been denied on the grounds that it could generate ”negative comments” about the project.
    Internal documents show requests for information from The Canberra Times have been denied on the grounds that it could generate ”negative comments” about the project. Photo: Gerrit Fokkema

    Staff in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s office have blocked the release of information on the year-long restoration of The Lodge, fearing “negative comments” about the $4.45 million project.
    As contractors continue major works at the prime minister’s official residence in Deakin, internal documents show bureaucrats were instructed to give purposefully vague responses to requests for information from The Canberra Times.
    Released under Freedom of Information rules, a series of emails show officials in the Finance Department were told not to provide any explanation or identify Mr Abbott’s office or the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as being responsible for the decision.
    One senior bureaucrat said Mr Abbott’s staff could be concerned about privacy or a poor reaction to the information being made public.
    ”Just say the visit has not been approved and you are unaware of the reasons,” the Finance Department official instructed a colleague via email in March.
    ”Don’t identify PM&C or the PMO as the decision makers, just leave it vague.”

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    “If we recapitulate all the WMD evidence; add his attempts to secure nuclear capability; and, as seems possible, add on the al-Qaeda link, it will be hugely persuasive over here. Plus… the abhorrent nature of the regime. It could be done simultaneously with the deadline.” Tony Blair

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