You would think that the idea of government transparency would go hand in hand with a well-functioning system of representative government. However, if you look at the U.S. as an example and consider when the pro-transparency Sunshine Act passed in 1976, we see a very different effect.

What seemed like a well-thought-out attempt to make government machinations more visible to the voting public — and thus increase trust in one’s representatives — actually resulted in the opposite.

Surprisingly (or not, depending on one’s view of human nature) the American public got an objectively bad outcome by requiring more “sunshine” from their elected representatives. Why? Because it became much easier for lobbyists and special interest groups to target representatives who could no longer compromise behind closed doors.

This collection of quotes looks at what happens when government becomes too transparent, especially in the U.S. Congress. Public trust of the government has been dropping since transparency laws were passed and is now at a historic low in the U.S., which furthermore shows that increased visibility isn’t always the answer.

These quotes show how the push for openness can let special interest groups and political parties capture undue influence over decision-making.


For more on the effects of transparency on government and Sunshine Laws check out this quick video by the Congressional Research Institute (CRI).

Fareed Zakaria

“The more open a system becomes, the more easily it can be penetrated by money, lobbyists and fanatics… Congress can now be monitored and influenced as never before. As a result, lobbies, which do most of the monitoring and influencing, have gained power.”

– Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria on Government Transparency Quotes

Francis Fukuyama

“The idea that more transparency in government is always an unalloyed good is a dangerous populist illusion… The demand to see decisions being made is more often about giving reporters fodder for juicy stories or enabling groups to pressure decision-makers than helping voters make decisions.”

– Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama on Government Transparency Quotes

Bruce Cain

“In the real world of American politics, interested individuals and organizations, not average citizens, have the greater incentive and means to monitor the government closely. This can open the door to obstruction and policy distortion as it enables regulatory capture by interested parties who advocate freely for their views without any countervailing public voice.”

– Bruce Cain

Bruce Cain on Government Transparency Quotes

Nelson Polsby

“The number of important changes affecting Congress over the last three decades is remarkable. They include: the transformation of the U.S. Senate from an encapsulated men’s club, a “citadel” in the description of one of its observers, into a publicity machine operated for the purpose of linking senators with national interest groups and factions.”

– Nelson Polsby

Nelson Polsby on Government Transparency Quotes

New York Times

“The high court caught her spirit, finding her anonymity “a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” honored by the Founding Fathers themselves when they didn’t sign their right names to the Federalist Papers.”

New York Times

New York Times on Government Transparency Quotes

Arthur Schlesinger

“Both Republicans and Democrats probably agree that you cannot run a government if every internal memorandum is promptly handed to the press.”

Arthur Schlesinger

Arthur Schlesinger on Government Transparency Quotes

Colleen Shogan

“Without reporters or lobbyists in the room, senators are free to debate difficult decisions and make deals without the pressures to posture or conform to narrow ideological or parochial views.”

– Colleen Shogan

Colleen Shogan on Government Transparency Quotes

Aaron Swartz

“Just making important data available won’t cause political change. Justice Brandeis’s clever aphorism to the contrary, sunlight is not in fact the best disinfectant; actual disinfectant is. Sunlight just makes it easier for people to look at the pus.”

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz on Government Transparency Quotes

“It’s hard to think of any good examples of transparency work accomplishing anything, except perhaps for more transparency.”

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz on Government Transparency Quotes

Stephanie Novak

“Publicity does not necessarily increase accountability.”

Stephanie Novak

Stephanie Novak on Government Transparency Quotes

“Decision makers used to voice their disagreement more frequently when they knew their votes would not be published.”

Stephanie Novak

Stephanie Novak on Government Transparency Quotes

Mark Warren & Jane Mansbridge

“[In secret, closed-door sessions] opposing parties can share their perspectives freely and come to understand the perspectives of others.”

– Mark Warren & Jane Mansbridge

Mark Warren & Jane Mansbridge on Government Transparency Quotes

Senator Dale Bumpers

“A good two-minute speech can, and often does, take a half-hour for a politician with a national television audience.”

Senator Dale Bumpers

Senator Dale Bumpers on Government Transparency Quotes

Michael Ignatieff

“Paradoxically, democracy needs a certain amount of secrecy at the heart of it.”

– Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff on Michael Ignatieff

Douglas Arnold

“Each committee first attempted to write a reform bill in public but soon discovered that sunshine was incompatible with reform.”

– Douglas Arnold

Douglas Arnold on Douglas Arnold

Mike Ananny & Kate Crawford

“[Open government] creates a ‘transparency illusion,’ promising consequential accountability that transparency cannot deliver.”

Mike Ananny & Kate Crawford

Mike Ananny & Kate Crawford on Government Transparency Quotes

Filippo Di Vivo

“Secrecy ultimately protected everyone’s freedom.”

Filippo Di Vivo

Filippo Di Vivo on Government Transparency Quotes