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.

 

 

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Political theory, Politics - international, Politics - national, Web and Government 2.0. Bookmark the permalink.
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john
john
10 years ago

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.

john
john
10 years ago

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.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“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.

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

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?

paul walter
paul walter
10 years ago

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?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

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?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

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.

john
john
10 years ago
Sam Roggeveen
10 years ago