Transparency isn't enough

My latest Guardian column, "Transparency means nothing without justice," is up. I wrote this before the G20 debacle (it was delayed due to an administrative problem at the Guardian), but all the points are just as relevant to the G20's climate camp as they are to last summer's version of it.
And here's where transparency breaks down. We've known about all this since last August - seven months and more. It was on national news. It was on the web. Anyone who cared about the issue knew everything they needed to know about it. And everyone had the opportunity to find out about it: remember, it was included in national news broadcasts, covered in the major papers - it was everywhere.

And yet ... nothing much has happened in the intervening eight months. Simply knowing that the police misbehaved does nothing to bring them to account.

Transparency means nothing unless it is accompanied by the rule of law. It means nothing unless it is set in a system of good and responsible government, of oversight of authority that expeditiously and effectively handles citizen complaints. Transparency means nothing without justice.

Transparency means nothing without justice


  1. You make a good point. I’m not familiar with the specific action, but… did any “protester” actually sue the police for their behaviour? If not, why not?

    That would be the first step to fight back. The second step is to vote in people who will change the law. Considering Tories’ traditional and Labourites’ present stance, I guess people should vote LibDem or Green to get some hope that things will change.

  2. Unfortunately voting Lib Dem will never really have enough of an effect in a country that operates a first past the post system for parlimentary representation.

    also the big blue wall of silence will continue to halt police transparency having any meaning – as a group they deal with so much abuse and crime that they simply have to protect their own.

  3. Cory,

    When are you going to start with the revolutionary rhetoric? It seems to me that those who abuse power are happy to thumb their noses at us and say “yeah, but what are you going to do about it?” comfortable in their knowledge that no one will do anything.

    They certainly won’t hold themselves accountable.

  4. I tried to comment on your article on the Guardian site, but I kept getting error messages, so I’ll post here (proper a higher standard of debate here anyway).

    I just wanted to add that there is a third dimension (at least) to understanding effective transparency.

    As you say, there is the practicalities and technology of transparency – the ability to monitor the activities of those in power, and to disseminate information on those activities to the public.

    As you point out, there is the additional necessity for effective systems of accountability and investigation; for an independent mechanism through which those in power can be brought to account. In many ways, and particularly in cases of police brutality or abuse of power, these mechanisms seem to have been eroded, or they never existed at all.

    I would add a third dimension to this, though. Justice, transparency and accountability don’t exist only in tools, public bodies, legislation and bureaucratic mechanisms. These are nothing without the public struggle, and the public activism, necessary to use, maintain and protect them.

    Rights are created and claimed through struggle, and by relying too much on public bodies and legislation, we ignore the most powerful tool for change.

  5. Can’t quite agree with you, old boy. With transparency at least justice is possible, even if deferred.

  6. Enjoyed this a lot, Cory, and sharing it with my team at work. We talk a lot about transparency in corporate governance, but have had a hard time articulating the follow-through needed to make it valuable; your article (true as it is) will serve as a great analogy for us.

  7. @ #1 – TOYG:

    I don’t know whether any protester from last summer’s climate camp (or the G20 protests) brought legal action against the police or the government, but I’m not sure that this would be the best course of action anyway.

    Voting isn’t going to change anything. Similarly to what I said above, people in this country think that democracy is about voting. It’s not, as should be obvious from the past 25 years of government in this country.

    Voting for the Greens or the Lib Dems or whoever will not topple Labour or the Tories from their top spots – the system is set up now to make this more or less imposssible (and with the increasing move towards US-style, big-money political campaigning, it’s becoming even less likely).

    That said, I will be voting Green. But I honestly believe that any real political change in this country will come about through the public circumventing party politics altogether.

  8. Cory –
    I’d love to hear what you think about seasteading and about Patri Friedman’s recent article on Cato:

    there are an increasing number of intellectuals, mostly economists, who are convinced that liberty can’t be achieved via politics at all, no matter how transparent the government is. for instance, bryan caplan’s book ‘the myth of the rational voter’ shows how democracy leads to bad outcomes because of innate human biases. michael shermer’s ‘the mind of the market’ make a similar argument.

    the recent 4chan/time magazine deal illustrates this well. time magazine’s online poll is a perfect analogy for real world democracy. Lobbyists and big corporate money are to politics as 4chan hackers are to the time magazine online poll. government, by its nature, is there to be gamed and exploited by the groups with the power to do it.

  9. the finish my thought:
    the only way to get rid of the corruption and abuse of power is the get rid of entrenched power systems; namely, monopoly government.

    the alternative to a monopoly of government?
    competitive government

  10. the specific enemies of liberty currently abusing their offices in government have to be identified, unmasked and taken out. Start with organized attack programs aimed very tightly at one abusive politico at a time and bend every effort to ruin them one by one. Expose their corrupt secrets and drive them from office. Go on the offensive, unnerve them by announcing their names, crimes and that their time is up. Start with the weaker and their co-conspirators will turn on them as soon as they are compromised. Crush them with truth. Show no mercy and make them afraid.

  11. I actually think that transparency directly results in justice in most cases. If everyone can see the injustice, and agrees that it should be changed, it will be fixed. Especially in a democratic form of government.

    What is preventing justice is not power mongering at the top, but ignorance and indifference at the bottom. The vast majority of people still don’t know, don’t care, or both. They have bread, and they have circuses. As long as they are not the victims of the injustice, they will not get outraged or do anything.

    As of right now, us Internet tech-people are victims, and that is why we care. We’re facing injustices in the form of censorship, net neutrality, copyright, etc. In addition, we’re much more in-touch and we pay attention to injustices of all kinds. Still, out of the billions of people on earth, we are an incredibly small minority.

    Transparency begets justice as long as enough people care and know. Ignorance and indifference are the enemies, not corrupt governors.

  12. to clarify: those who seek and obtain political power, upon achieving it, shift all their resource into retaining it. Nothing else matters to them and all normal decency and restraint evaporate. It is the nature of politics.

    Consequently, their view of their electorate becomes even more hardened and calloused. The contempt they began with in seeing the voters as cattle to be manipulated and beaten into pens metamorphoses into active war against a threat to their position and power, a threat that must be utterly mastered and broken.

    They now see the people as an enemy, a beast both wily and ponderous that can’t be trusted in the slightest and that must be kept down at all times.
    Keep in mind that any ruler surveying the populace always has a vain wish at the back of his mind that the collective have only one neck to sever in one blow. It is a war, a war undeclared save in the oppression they dish out. Most voters prefer to sleepwalk through it rather than face the unpalatable truth. But there it is.
    For those with the strength to see clearly, accept it is war and conduct yourelf accordingly.

  13. @ 1

    sueing the police is pointless as we, the tax payer, pay for it.

    What needs to happen is that the police and also MP’s, Celebrates, ect, are not deemed to be above the law and are given conviction penalty that the normal UK [b]serf[/b] would have!

    for instance; this Labour Peer that was convicted of killing a father of two. he had been engaged in a 17-minute text message conversation with a friend as he drove his gold X-type Jaguar on the M1:

    read more about Lord Ahmed here:

    he was subsequently released after causing death due to dangerous driving after only serving 16 days.

  14. What sorts of vain wishes do you suppose lie at the back of the mind of every CEO of every corporate mega-giant?

    Government isn’t great, and it shouldn’t regulate everything, but often enough it’s the best of a set of bad options. In the absence of government, the power currently situated there wouldn’t disappear, it would simply shift – and it would primarily shift to already entrenched holders of power, only they would not longer have to pay even lip service to accountability.

  15. Takuan’s description of a “war,” though melodramatic, is the right basic idea. In fact, the whole theory behind representative democracy is based on that fact, to actually use it. The goal is to create and maintain a system whereby the easiest method of retaining power is simply to abide by the wishes of the people. Obviously, both transparency and an interested public are necessary for this to function as intended, and if it does then the accountability is built in. These things need to be actively maintained.

    However, the things to remember here are that it is never going to be a perfect system and it isn’t intended to be, since such a thing is possible. It is supposed to simply be the best option, in that it has the best (not perfect) method of self-correction. Second, one should keep in mind that politicians are, believe it or not, human beings. Most of them have been, at some point, earnestly trying to improve the world in addition to their own position in it. They’re not all the same, and very few of them actually wish that we all had but one neck.

  16. #7 – I read the article, and would love for it to be a good alternative to what we have. However, it seems to ignore the following problems (off the top of my head):

    Location and environmental issues. Competitive governments, like corporations, will be incentivized to provide as much “value” to their constituents as possible, which means externalizing costs as much as possible. It will therefore be in each government’s best interest to destroy the commons, things that can never be split up amongst competing governments – air, water, etc..

    Governments, like health insurance companies, would be competing for healthy, wealthy people, while trying to shed unhealthy poor people. It is easy to imagine the results of this. What incentivizes goverments to well-manage poorer people? If any government *does* care well for poor people, it will immediately be flooded with poor people and all the wealthy people will leave.

    What is to prevent governments, like large monopolies, from merging and limiting choice, just like we see from utilities, cel providers, health insurance agencies, and banks. Personally, I’m getting crappy service from all of the above – I’d rather my government didn’t behave like them.

    I like the novel thought around increased agency within our government, and I like the localization promoted by the article – I’m just not sure that the cure is what they proscribe. A much smaller scale fix to scope creep would be a government with a limit on the number of laws, where the only way to make a new one is to throw out an old one (with each law length-limited, natch).

  17. UKCANNONFODDER @15: your argument is pointless, this has nothing to do with Lord Ahmed, who cooperated fully with the inquest at every stage, never tried to deceive anyone, and went through the justice system like everyone else (well, maybe with a better lawyer than average, but that’s beside the point).

    The police here actively deceived the media with false reports, or even (during G20) broke the rules by refusing to report their IDs. They didn’t go through the system, they called themselves out of it, which one should not be allowed to do.
    I still believe that someone should have sued them — who cares if taxpayers end up paying for it, you can take it out of the overall police budget and next time somebody complains that “the police budget is too small!” an elected representative can point out that it’s all their fault, so that somebody will eventually learn a lesson.

  18. I just like to remember the shameful case of the Brasilian Jean Charles that was killed by the London police, the whole thing was documented by the subway cameras, and latter they leaked to the press. Jean wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was just going to work and yet he was brutally murdered by the same people who should be protecting him.

    Nothing has happened, no one was arrested, the family got apologies from the UK government and nothing more. Living in a country, Brazil, where impunity is a rule I must advise you britons to not goi down this road for it leads to big problems.

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