Research Handbook on Transparency
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Research Handbook on Transparency

Edited by Padideh Ala’i and Robert G. Vaughn

In the last two decades transparency has become a ubiquitous and stubbornly ambiguous term. Typically understood to promote rule of law, democratic participation, anti-corruption initiatives, human rights, and economic efficiency, transparency can also legitimate bureaucratic power, advance undemocratic forms of governance, and aid in global centralization of power. This path-breaking volume, comprising original contributions on a range of countries and environments, exposes the many faces of transparency by allowing readers to see the uncertainties, inconsistencies and surprises contained within the current conceptions and applications of the term.
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Chapter 10: The history of government transparency

Daniel J. Metcalfe


Transparency in government is a relatively recent phenomenon, although secrecy and transparency are but two sides of the same coin, especially when it comes to the tendency of governments not to share information with those who are governed, a propensity that is multi-faceted and strong. On one side of this coin – government secrecy – are such things as “national security classification,” “official secrets,” the “state secrets privilege,” and the like. In non-democratic forms of government, which was the only type of government that existed until about 250 years ago, a better way of describing it would be as “the status quo,” or “just how things were.” Until very recently in history, the ordinary relationship between governors and the governed included little if any official disclosure of information – and certainly no disclosure as of “right.” In considering transparency in government one must view it as a modern exception to government secrecy and understand it in relation to the fundamental nature of “secrecy” itself. Secrecy is inherent in human nature. Put any three people together and it is likely that sooner or later, for one reason or another, two of them will be keeping a secret from the third. Within families, there are all sorts of reasons for which secrets are kept, most often between parent and child, out of natural feelings of protectiveness and paternalism.

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