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Transparency vs. Accountability: Which Is More Valued in American Democracy?

by Glenn Davis, published

Many people have called for increased transparency in government, especially with intelligence agencies like the NSA, but perhaps what they really mean is better accountability.

The two terms are often used in tandem, but the contrast is vital to understanding the checks and balances we cherish in our democracy. To the extent that it is possible to have one without the other, which is more acceptable in our society? Which is more highly valued? Or, do we simply want the overseers of the agencies to do their jobs?

First, let’s look at the two expressions independently.


Accountability is about who is ultimately answerable for an action or -- in some cases -- inaction, and for the consequences ensuing from either. Accountability can denote responsibility in a positive context, or in another sense, culpability. And let’s face it, there’s plenty of blame thrown around in Washington.

Then there is the question of to whom our elected officials are accountable. One would presume the obvious answer is the electorate; at least, that would be the ideal. However, there are times elected officials must transcend accountability to those they directly represent for the greater ideal of benefiting the country as a whole.

There is also the clearly problematic temptation for our representatives to serve the interests of donors or others with influence. Accountability to the wrong people for the wrong reasons is at the root of government corruption.

How do we ensure that the public is being properly served by the government?

Our system of democracy includes many structural mechanisms which foster accountability. Checks and balances give Congress the ability to hold the Executive Branch accountable, the Supreme Court ultimate authority over legislation, and the Executive Branch its veto power over legislation.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) exists to support Congress in its efforts to serve the people, as its auditing, investigatory, and advising agency. In this capacity, the GAO is the primary internal overseer ensuring accountability.

Freedom of the press allows the media to serve as an additional and crucial safeguard over the actions of government. Many private organizations also exist as independent watchdogs over abuses of power.

It is clear that accountability is protected at many levels. But without transparency, how can the various groups accomplish their mission? Accountability alone is not always enough to complete the circle.


Transparency is a cornerstone of democracy -- the obligation to make information accessible to the public. Openness is prized; secrecy is the enemy.

"Democracies die behind closed doors," wrote Judge Damon J. Keith in a federal court of appeals decision in 2002 condemning secret deportation hearings.

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right...and a desire to know,” John Adams penned in 1765.

But more than an abstract concept, the public’s right for transparent, open government is protected by law.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966, the Government in the Sunshine Act of 1976, and other legislation on federal, state, and local levels all contribute to a mandate of full disclosure of government activities. Open meetings and accessibility to information on government activities are central to these protections.

On President Obama’s first day of office in 2009, two memoranda were issued pledging the new administration’s commitment to open government and freedom of information.

The documents promised greater transparency in a variety of ways, including an assurance that agencies will use new technologies to make information publicly available.

“Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government,” Obama wrote.

Referring to the FOIA, the administration asserted that there shall be a clear presumption that “in the face of doubt, openness prevails.” It promised “a new era of open Government.”

Transparency is an asset to be protected and valued.


Looking at the two concepts together is where things get really interesting.

The 2009 presidential memoranda depicted the following tangled relationship:

  • “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”
  • “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”

So, if transparency promotes accountability and accountability requires transparency, the Obama administration had better be sure to adhere to both of these tenets.

However, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan points out that Obama’s track record of achieving a more open government has been troublesome. How can this be, given that the administration has such a clear handle on the meaning and importance of these values?

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative, an independent group whose mission includes “empowering citizens to hold their governing institutions to account,” also defines the two terms relative to one another:


Relating this back to national security, it becomes clear that tradeoffs need to be made. Few would deny the intelligence community the tools to combat terrorism. The Sunshine Act itself specifies an exemption for national defense. But who is accountable when the same technology is used to bypass the rights of ordinary citizens?

Would we even speak of accountability for the recent actions of the NSA in this regard if Edward Snowden had not brought it to the open? What role does the media play in balancing the public’s right to know with national security?

Speaking on the Edward Snowden documents in an interview with Al Jazeera America, Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, commented on this equilibrium. Abramson said:

“We make those decisions trying to apply common-sense balancing tests, where we respectfully listen to concerns of the U.S. government that publishing a story is going to actually harm national security, and we balance those concerns against the importance and newsworthiness of the information and our primary duty, which is to keep the public informed.”

Homeland security and military secrets cannot be subjected to full and immediate openness. Yet the public’s acceptance of government operating behind closed doors requires trust. The Edward Snowden affair eroded that trust.

Too much transparency can be problematic under other conditions as well.

Less transparency in the legislature, a.k.a. “backroom deal-making,” can bolster the ability of Congress to resolve difficult policy issues. This view was promoted by a recent American Political Science Association (APSA) task force on congressional negotiation.

The relationship between transparency and accountability is a delicate one, not something to expound in broad sweeping statements demanding that we want it all.

If government is to be held accountable to solve problems -- and isn’t that the ultimate ideal? -- then under certain circumstances this objective must be bartered with reduced transparency in order to yield desired results. But we can’t achieve accountability without transparency either.

If we want government to do its job, we must find the proper balance. We need to accept that while we can’t have it all, they both remain central to our democratic ideals. We must carefully consider and tread lightly on this hallowed ground.

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