Trust is key.
Released emails. Deleted emails. Found emails. The latest scandal, in a long list of scandals this presidential election season, is one of transparency.
Hilary Clinton operated a private email server while Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. The FBI investigated her handling of classified information while using this server. As part of this investigation, Clinton’s team turned over 30,000 emails but deleted another 33,000 messages noting they were personal in nature. FBI Director James Comey concluded this investigation by saying that while Clinton had been “extremely careless” there were no grounds to charge her.
However, that’s not the end of the story. Recently, new emails were found on a computer belonging to the husband of Clinton’s close associate. In retrospect, it was almost inevitable that more hardware with additional emails would come to light. The latest twist in the tale of transparency surrounds the decision of Comey telling Congress that additional emails were found. The emails are being reviewed to determine if the original decision not to press charges needs to be adjusted.
The question of whether Comey’s letter to Congress is legal will be decided in the courts. But is it productive transparency?
When releasing information that isn’t mandatory, leaders need to consider whether their actions match the following core values:
When to release
That new emails were found was always going to become public. The issue is about timing. There are many reasons the release of information is typically delayed, including evolving public policy development, contract negotiations, or an ongoing criminal investigation. What is unclear is how much the Congressional notification and subsequent attention has affected the actual investigation. However, the FBI agents handling this investigation are clearly now under an increased amount of pressure to finish their analysis of 30,000 emails before the election.
What to release
Government officials need to decide if the information under consideration refers to a governmental process or is about an event or action. Transparency of process is useful and welcome. We want to understand how governments make decisions. The issue with Comey’s letter at such an early stage of the investigation is whether it could somehow alter the outcome of the investigation. This of course is something we will never fully know. The release of information is frequently tied to reputation—the reputation of an organization and the reputation of individuals. Comey apparently decided to release the information to protect the FBI and his own reputation, not necessarily to increase our understanding of Clinton’s handling of classified information.
Governmental transparency versus governmental waste
Make no mistake – transparency costs money and slows things down. In many cases the more transparent a government agency is the more it costs to operate. If government officials were to post every memo they wrote, upload every data set they developed to a data portal, and hold every meeting in the open very little work would get done. Of course, extreme transparency is not embodied in the norms, rules, and regulations we have in the United States and does not happen in practice. However, without transparency, journalists, activists, and regular citizens are unable to highlight government overspending, waste, or poor management. The right amount of transparency saves money.
More transparency does not equal more trust
The relationship between governmental transparency and trust is unclear. More transparency doesn’t always lead to greater trust in government. This isn’t inherently a problem. Transparency doesn’t always lead to more trust in government, but that is not the only goal. As a country, we have embraced transparency because it promotes democratic accountability. The purpose of transparency policies is not just to increase trust, but more broadly legitimacy and accountability. The goals may be at odds with each other. In the Comey case, the values in tension are transparency and due process. Will the release of the information about reopening the email investigation inhibit due process?
Usability is important
How information is presented matters. Raw data is of less use than digestible information. While it is interesting to know that an investigation is going on, that piece of information on its own does not at all inform our understanding of the issue.
A close analysis of Clinton’s email practices is one that deserves national attention. Comey’s decision to inform Congress now about the ongoing investigation has helped protect the reputation of the FBI and its director, possibly at the expense of cost and due-process, but there is little evidence that the early release of this information has added in any meaningful way to the public’s understanding of this complicated issue.
Suzanne J. Piotrowski is a deputy dean and associate professor at Rutgers University’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.