The Transparency Game: Government Information, Access, and Actionability

Abstract

Democratic governments might be required by law to disseminate information to the people. This is called governmental transparency. What is the burden of transparency? We propose a “pragmatic information theory of communication” that places information accessibility as a foundation of transparency. Using a game model—the Transparency Game—we show that the pragmatic theory is the only one that makes it difficult for governments to appear transparent (transparency de vidi) while not actually being transparent (transparency de facto). There are two important consequences of understanding transparency through the theory: (1) Accessible information must be actionable, and (2) cognitive science plays a vital role in assessing the accessibility of information. These consequences can have implications for public policies that promote transparency.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Ignored, that is, as an opportunity to improve transparency. Considering the large recent literature on regulatory capture (see Dal Bó, 2006 for a review), showing that in many places, the texts of regulations (and their judicial review) are carefully crafted by special interest groups whose aim is often misaligned with the purpose of the regulation, we can expect that the format of the information is purposefully obfuscated. Note that regulations, qua texts, are forms of government communication, and as such subject to transparency analysis.

  2. 2.

    In communication research, at least as early as the work of researchers such as Berlo (1960), Schramm (1954), and others, it has been recognized that communication is a continual process. Theories based on single, one-direction acts cannot capture the full complexity and subtleties of the social dynamics of communication. We are fully aware of this. However, our goal is to offer a conceptual analysis of transparency. To this end, it pays to minimize complexity of the models that the theories describe.

  3. 3.

    There is an important complexity here. In some cases, a separate agent may be responsible for making the government transparent. One role of the media may be exactly this. We will return to this question later.

  4. 4.

    US Federal Election Committee Statute §102 <https://www.fec.gov/regulations/102-1/2018-annual-102#102-1> See Section 9 about “Accounting for contributions and expenditures” (52 U.S.C. 30,102(c))

  5. 5.

    In some communication theories, this is referred to as the channel (McLuhan). Of course, the notion of “channel” is used in different ways in different theories (Berlo 1960). As a result, we regard the notion of channel as a variable fixed by the specific communication theory.

  6. 6.

    We are assuming that transparency is not justified by providing information for knowledge sake, as might be the case in an academic exercise.

  7. 7.

    To remind, we are interested in whether the agents can receive such an information in stuffily general case, given their specific architecture and background. In specific cases, an agent may not receive the information because, for example, he or her is not paying attention. We do not want to include such extraneous circumstances.

  8. 8.

    The transparency game argument we offer may be formulated without using the game analogy. The game we examine offers, in our view, a good pedagogical device to present the argument. Moreover, the structure of the game resembles actual institutional structure that may be used to enforce transparency. Thus, the formulation may facilitate translation into policy analysis.

  9. 9.

    There are many complexities and controversies with treating the “people” or the “public” as an agent. For the purposes of our discussion, we think of the “people” as a collection of individuals with their own goals. Thus, the communication act is really many simultaneous acts of individual people. There are clearly cases where political groups really do act as individual agents. Moreover, with the growth of social media, where micro-groups can form spontaneously and political communication can be transformed in real time—messages are decorated with comments and likes, and sources are entangled (the message is for X as shared by Y)—new communication dynamics have emerged. All of these complexities must be subject to further research.

  10. 10.

    Here, an “act” is simply a move in the game in response to another agent. The simplest such act may be to decide between ignoring or attending to the information. Reception of information is a highly active affair, as communication science has long affirmed and as cognitive science has demonstrated. This point will be very important once we develop a communications theory.

  11. 11.

    Here, we are assuming that only accessibility is at stake. In a more general scenario, sufficiency must be established as well.

  12. 12.

    It is completely obvious to us that the communication processes of a complex society, especially a democracy, are very complex, involving many players with divergent goals and differing social functions. Still, all communication, even broadcasting, is at the bottom a network of single communication links. This does not preclude the possibility that, in some cases, individual communication links depend on their place in the wider communication network. It is well recognized, for example, that official diplomatic statements are often intended for different audiences simultaneously (e.g., foreign and domestic); thus, a competent recipient of the information must understand this.

  13. 13.

    For example, such theories recognize that human communication is dynamic and involves continual feedback between the agents or recognize that many agents (and institutions) with diverse goals participate in the communication process.

  14. 14.

    In the theory, the idea of a “message” is very general. Message simply means a difference in the system with respect to some available alternatives. Moreover, one of the most important components of Shannon’s theory—noise—is not included in the discussion. This is because the theory runs into difficulty even when there is no noise.

  15. 15.

    The receiver medium is not identical with the receiver role in the game. The receiver of the game is an agent. The receiver in the communication theory is just a system whose state carries information about the source.

  16. 16.

    Assuming, as a general rule, that a roof job should not demand $15,000 of new capital expenditure.

  17. 17.

    Note how in this paragraph we used a parenthetical remark to formally appear neutral. Yet, we manage to hint that the right-wing position is deleterious. A reader will likely be left with the impression that we are making a political statement. And of course, we mean to (to illustrate the point). However, if somebody objects to our own ideological bias, we can use the remark as evidence for neutrality. Whether or not such evidence can be accepted depends on whether one takes deep cognitive considerations seriously.

  18. 18.

    This phenomenon is related to what is sometimes described as framing the information. Some cases of framing are quite transparent and can easily be included in a Gricean account. In fact, one of the motivations of Grice’s theory was to show how careful formulation of an utterance might be used to change the meaning of the expression by highlighting contextual features. While his theory aimed to explain successful communication, it can be used to account for some instances of unsuccessful communication and deceit.

  19. 19.

    This is a different thesis from what is sometimes described as the computational theory of cognition. For more discussion about the relation between cognitive systems and information systems as used here, see Vakarelov (2011).

  20. 20.

    We recognize that “information” is plural notion, and there may be many domains where use of the term information can be appropriate. Computer science is an example. However, for the particular domain of investigation related to government transparency and information access, the players are cognitive beings and the stakes are related to human aims.

  21. 21.

    There is increased interest in cognitive science about the nature of cognitive biases and how formatting or framing information can have predictable effect on human behavior. These findings, when coupled with recent research in psychometrics—the study of how to measure and classify difference of human character traits and behavior—a big-data analytic techniques based on individual digital footprints—for example, the publicized study of predicting personality traits based on Facebook likes (see Kosinski et al. 2013)—can offer powerful tools for manipulation of opinion or affecting voter behaviors. It has been alleged that such tactics has been used in political companies, such as the 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2016 US presidential election. Such actionable tools for manipulation of information require high cost of entry, and thus can be available only to governments or large organizations.

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Correspondence to Orlin Vakarelov.

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Vakarelov, O., Rogerson, K. The Transparency Game: Government Information, Access, and Actionability. Philos. Technol. 33, 71–92 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-019-0340-z

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Keywords

  • Governmental information flows
  • Governmental transparency
  • Information access
  • Information actionability
  • Pragmatic information theory