Edited by Padideh Ala’i and Robert G. Vaughn
Chapter 13: Faux transparency: ethics, privacy and the demise of the STOCK Act’s massive online disclosure of employees’ finances
In 2012, the U.S. Congress enacted the STOCK Act, legislation that would have created an unprecedented level of transparency in the federal government. As originally passed, the STOCK Act mandated the creation of a searchable, sortable database of the financial interest statements filed by members of Congress, highly paid Congressional staff, and 28,000 executive branch employees. Never before had the private financial holdings of so many government officials been so easily accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Many of these employees were alarmed at the prospect of this public posting of their information, objecting on both legal and policy grounds, filing lawsuits and launching a public relations battle. In response, Congress delayed the web posting provisions three times and ordered a study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). The STOCK Act provides a case study in the collision between two fundamental norms regarding public accessibility of government records: (1) the norm that information about the government should be available to the public unless there is a good reason to withhold it, and (2) the norm that information about individuals that is in the hands of the government should be kept confidential unless there is a good reason to disclose it. What happens when these two norms collide? In this case, after the controversy surrounding the STOCK Act’s transparency mandate laid bare the tension between these two norms, the earlier status quo prevailed.
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