Why Wikileaks is Good for Government (Privacy Part 2)

High atop the crow’s nest in which the policy practioner rests, the information privacy battle appears to making a surprising turn in favour of government. Though the most basic hyper-confidential intuitions of the bureaucrat would suggest otherwise, the trend toward Web 2.0, Gov 2.0, and Open Data will make our jobs much easier.

Beyond the obvious reasons for this conclusion like exploitation of the wisdom of crowds, movement toward citizen-centric services, and the leveraging of number crunchers in civil society, there is another very important consequence of opening-up government that does not get much press yet which could totally change the way the average person sees politics in this country. That consequence, simply put, is our gradually waning appetite for scandal and a corresponding weakening of rabble-rousing scrutiny—perhaps a government’s worst enemy.

It is my belief that with the advent of YouTube, facebook, countless blogs, the strangely dated 24-hour news cycle, a series of Open Data initiatives in other jurisdictions, and even Wikileaks, the public is increasingly tolerable of “screw-ups” and less shocked and subversive as the results of political revelations. Slowly but surely people, in every sphere, are revealing their virtual identities, warts and all. Everyday people are exposed to some extraordinary blunder. People are inundated with policy stories, policy speculation, and policy analysis. They are witnessing governments being lauded, and governments being slandered. We are watching fuzzy numbers take-down government proposals as well as plainly fantastic tales of government conspiracies stir some controversy.

We are also realizing that the scandal-value of these newsflashes, which is initially very high and politically scary, are also subject to diminishing marginal returns, and the public psyche is either becoming more accepting of the fallibility of their neighbours or is at least willing to give some credit to those people who put themselves out on a limb for the sake of being transparent and genuine. If this mentality can successfully move to government, than we can expect people to be all right with the fact that governments sometime do well, sometimes not so well, and sometimes are impenetrably boring.

In order for governments to ingrain this mentality in the public consciousness, an effort needs to be made to combat the still lingering false hysteria toward government information, by eliminating the false scarcity of information. Crucially, if governments continue to jealously guard their information as everyone else eagerly releases theirs, red-flags will begin to go up and the conspiratorial speculation will begin anew. If, on the other hand, government proactively opens-up the books, invites people to come and see for all those predictably good reasons mentioned above, and then lets the public look at the good, bad, and ugly, I expect they will find an appreciative public, understanding of some error, eager to help-out, and surprised by all the good work the government is actually doing.

Confidentiality is the last refuge of the bureaucrat, and it’s time we get rid of it. Let’s stop fighting the inevitable and take a lead for a change. Let’s look cool, trust the public, while concurrently not giving them a reason to be suspicious of us. As my namesake said “the times they are a-changin”, and if government does not understand that the way we produce and respond to information has changed, what was once a way of protecting ourselves from scrutiny will become our data downfall.

– By Dylan Marando

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2 responses to “Why Wikileaks is Good for Government (Privacy Part 2)

  1. I’m going to copypasta a comment I left at eaves.ca but I’ll first add that I see a serious problem, and it is this: Fact: seven out of every three #opengov evangelists is an Assange fanboy. Cablegate unquestionably and unambiguously did irreparable harm to #opengov movement and aforementioned evangelists are having a hard time admitting that. You’ve now got a bunch of programmers who sincerely believe that leaking government info is the cat’s ass trying to convince those same governments to give them access to their systems and information. I see a Bad Idea Jeans commercial here.

    Information wants to be free? Funny, when his creepy stalky emails were released Assange didn’t seem to think so. Some information, such as sensitive diplomatic cables, should remain classified.

    Copypasta:

    WikiLeaks is the worst thing to happen to Gov2.0. All governments are now justified in being more careful about allowing access to classified material. Even a low level keyboard jockey like me has had access to tombstone data for entire Fed Gov and military (I never snooped, let alone leaked). It is said a million Americans have Top Secret clearance.

    Another problem is that an extremely high number of Gov2.0 advocates sincerely believe the childish aphorism “information wants to be free”; can you blame managers for being nervous about hiring these people?

    And another thing: Gov2.0ers skew very much to the left, publication bias becomes an issue: would Bradley Manning have leaked info which suggested gays in military were enormously problematic, for example? Would Assange publish it? Would an Obama fanboy leak\publish anything harmful to Obama?

    On the other side, there’s been plenty of leaking of Harper gov’t documents by obviously left wing individuals with axes to grind and who vastly outnumber right wingers in the bureaucracy.

    But getting back to Wikileaks: what was released was primarily embarrassing gossip, this wasn’t a whistle blowing operation. Assange has explicitly stated Wikileaks’ raison d’etre is not as a platform for whistleblowing and exposing gov’t wrongdoing because he’s a swell guy, but rather to destabilize and destroy governments, any and all governments. Presumably when this is done we will all spoon with each other and live happily ever after.

    In a word, he’s immature, so are his fanboys, and they’ve done enormous harm to the Gov2.0 movement.

  2. Side-stepping Cablegate.

    Dylan, I think that for all the intellectual weight behind opendata, in politics it comes down to power. And right now there is not a raving mob that will crown the first person to open government. That’s not to say that the opengov mob isn’t growing, I only suggest that the democratic deficit will need to grow larger before there is a carrot big enough for a major party to risk it, or an outsider to withstand the fate of the reform party.

    But I fully agree, just show us the dirty laundry so that we can finally clean it. To make a bold suggestion – ministerial/managerial amnesty for all but criminal activity. I’m more than willing to let some public (dis)servants keep their pensions if it means we get to a place of opendata: all hands on deck shared governance.

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