Will WikiLeaks Set Back Open Government

In the wake of yet another massive disclosure of compromising US government secrets, it’s worth reflecting on whether Wikileaks is helping or in fact undermining the transparency movement in the United States and abroad.

To conclude that Wikileaks’ unapologetic disclosures are undermining transparency is admittedly a counter-intuitive. After all, the self-proclaimed “intelligence service of the people” has, in just a few short years, released more than a million confidential documents, from highly classified military secrets to text messages of those killed in the 9/11 attacks. In this most recent disclosure, Julian Assange and co. released thousands of State Department documents that revealed candid impressions from diplomats and other world leaders about America’s allies and foes.

By throwing thousands of raw cables out in the open, Wikileaks has invited the world to sift through the details. Journalists and interested citizens alike can now hunt for embarrassing and perhaps even incriminating interchanges among diplomats. Isn’t that the ultimate transparency, where nothing, not even war or diplomatic relations, can be carried out in secret?

Perhaps, but it’s worth considering whether radical transparency will result in the genuine political openness that transparency advocates desire.

As much as they try to downplay the repercussions, world leaders are clearly perturbed. The Obama administration has already ordered government agencies review procedures for safeguarding classified information. Other governments are doing the same and will surely now be more cautious about sharing information with the US.

Now, could the Wikileaks blowback potentially stall or even reverse the recent transparency gains that have been made through the administration’s open government initiative? I’m not too worried, but consider these consequences.

The Department of State has been a vocal champion of Internet-enabled transparency, especially under secretary Clinton. In her public remarks on Internet freedom in January, Clinton was a jubilant supporter. “In many respects, information has never been so free,” she said. “There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”

Would Clinton utter the same words today? Her statement earlier on Monday struck a very different tone. Clinton said the release of confidential information to the public “tears at the fabric of responsible government.” “Every country, including the US,” she continues, “must be able to have honest, private dialogue with other countries about issues of common concern…. When someone breaches that trust, we are all worse off for it.”

So will the Department of State now think twice about pushing the transparency agenda forward? And won’t repressive governments in Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere point to the State Department’s failure to control information as a reason not to open up themselves?

Richard Haass, president of Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that “American diplomats may be less and less willing to commit their thoughts to paper,” noting that such reticence “will deprive policymakers of an important source of information and make decision making more ad hoc and less systematic that it needs to be.”

In the broader context of Washington, could public servants interpret these concerns as a reason to be wary of open government? Public servants, especially those who remain suspicious of the calls for open data, could use Wikileaks as a justification for withholding information from the public. And that, in turn, could arrest some of the momentum behind the movement to treat public data as a platform on which a new generation of public services can be constructed and old ones enhanced.

To be sure, it’s hard to see why municipal governments would suddenly think twice about releasing data about crime stats or building permits, for example. Likewise, federal agencies are unlikely to roll back disclosures that have turned online repositories like data.gov into goldmines for data geeks and social innovators.

But the fact remains that open government advocates have worked hard to counter deeply engrained assumptions about the need to control information in order to achieve this level of openness. In the fallout from Wikileaks, the bureaucratic inclination to control will likely be heightened.

There is also reason to be concerned about what will happen to cross-agency data sharing initiatives in light of the fact that the leaked documents were downloaded from a shared defense network called Siprnet, to which some 2.5 million federal employees have access. Ironically, Siprnet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network), which was set up in the 1990s, was expanded as part of moves after 9/11 to allow classified information to be shared more easily and prevent failures of communication between different intelligence agencies.

Similar knowledge and data sharing initiatives are at heart of recent efforts to break down the organizational silos that inhibit effective collaboration among federal agencies and between levels of government. Will security concerns put a brake on initiatives that could lower costs, eliminate redundancies and help agencies that act in concert provide higher quality and better-integrated services to citizens?

One reason why I’m cautiously optimistic is that the transparency trend is long in the making and has survived previous setbacks. Indeed, taking a historical view, transparency has already made great leaps forward. The contrast between the levels of transparency several decades ago and those today is astounding across all issue areas. Fifty years ago, few countries routinely released information about their economies — indeed, many treated such information as state secrets. Now scores of countries post the details on the IMF’s website. A half-century ago, no country had laws specifically requiring government officials to provide information to their citizens. Now there are scores of them. Until as recently as the 1990s, environmental regulation consisted largely of governments telling corporations what production processes to use. Now regulation is increasingly about telling them they simply have to report what they’re polluting, and make that information public.

Going forward, transparency will continue to be bolstered by prevailing social and technological forces. The speed, flexibility and reach of human communications will continue to increase the power of employees, customers and civil society to find out information, inform others, and organize. And the insatiable public appetite for information and spectacle will always provide the media with an incentive to put powerful actors under the spotlight. So while not irreversible, the transparency trend is powerful and unlikely to be quelled — even if terrorist attacks, economic downturns and reactionary forces occasionally result in minor setbacks.

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Anthony D. Williams is a best-selling author, speaker and consultant who helps organizations worldwide harness the power of collaborative innovation in business, government and society. Read more about Anthony.