The Wells Conference Center played host to the 2010 William S. Cohen Papers Forum Nov. 12, which focused on the promise and problems of transparency in government proceedings.
The forum, which took place from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., gave attendees a chance to listen to varying viewpoints on the topic of what the word transparency actually means and how the concept should be applied in the modern world.
“We had a chance to hear directly from people representing organizations that take a strong interest in this issue, like the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, and InforME, a private company that partners with the state to create Maine.gov,” said forum coordinator and William S. Cohen Papers Archivist Desiree Butterfield.
University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Cary Coglianese addressed the forum as the keynote speaker with a presentation titled “The Politics of Open Government.”
In his address, Coglianese spoke of two forms transparency can take: the fishbowl model or the reasoned approach. Fishbowl transparency is the idea that raw data of government decisions should be published for the public to sort through and decipher, whereas the reasoned approach involves a carefully constructed explanation of specific actions.
“We need less noise and more music,” Coglianese said.
Coglianese exhibited a clear preference for reasoned transparency during his speech. He argued that increased transparency and the overwhelming availability of information might not be leading to greater participation in government.
He called into question the idea that increased transparency is a “universal good,” citing the Open Government Initiative created by President Barack Obama as an example of the problems created by fishbowl transparency. Coglianese envisioned a political landscape in which statements made during an open, frank discussion could be skewed to harm someone’s reputation if published.
“It will inhibit desirable behavior — dissent and the proverbial dumb question,” he said.
Michael Hastings, director of UMaine’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, illustrated a potential negative side effect of fishbowl transparency by explaining the issues raised by a Freedom of Information Act request received by his office.
Hastings said UMaine had been awarded a grant for a project the university was working on with a private business partner. When approached with the FOIA request, the university was forced to black out several sections of the proposal in order to protect its partner in the private sector, a process he described as time-consuming.
Coglianese replied to Hastings by saying the court system, which has the ability to reject FOIA requests it deems arbitrary or capricious, has been too demanding of organizations when considering requests for information and that judicial oversight should be relaxed. Under freedom of access laws, agencies must demonstrate the frivolity of requests in order for them to be denied, a process he said constrains public institutions.
Following Coglianese’s address, those in attendance were given the opportunity to listen to a series of speakers who voiced their opinions on transparency issues in three discussions titled “Meeting the Mandate: National and Statewide Perspectives,” “The Democratization of Information” and “Transparency Trends: Getting Beyond the Buzzword.”
Jim Campbell, who serves as a board member of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and as chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee for the Maine Library Association, gave a presentation during the midday luncheon moderated by Sunny Hughes, an assistant professor of communication and journalism at UMaine.
The forum provided attendees with a direct line to ask questions of and interact with the speakers throughout the day by using a hyperblog that was created by Jon Ippolito and Joline Blais of UMaine’s new media department. The hyperblog, a live-time blog where members of the forum’s audience could post comments or questions in order to join discussion, remains open at http://transparency.nmdprojects.net/.
“This became a space where the audience members could post questions, thoughts, and related [web addresses] as part of the interaction of each session,” Butterfield said, adding that Hughes “moderated it throughout the day and read questions during [question and answer] sessions.”
This was the fourth gathering of the Cohen Papers Forum, which Butterfield said is organized with the goal of raising awareness of the “research potential of the William S. Cohen papers available through Fogler Library.”
“We choose a topic that Cohen worked on while he was in office — one that has recently resurfaced in current event — and we invite speakers to offer perspectives on that issue,” she said.
The Cohen papers are a collection of documents that former U.S. Senator and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen donated to the library upon his retirement.
“As you know, when I retired from the Senate, I decided that my papers — more than 1,500 boxes worth — would come to the University of Maine because I believe that the product of a public career should go to a public institution,” Cohen said in a speech given during the first William S. Cohen Lecture at UMaine in 1998. “I am very pleased that the university was eager and happy to accept them.”
Butterfield said the topic of transparency was chosen this year due in part to a recent donation of documents to the Fogler Library from the 1970s. The documents were a collection of financial records prepared by Cohen.
Butterfield said Cohen chose to donate the records because “the public had a right to know the financial holdings of those in whom they had placed their trust by electing them to a public office.”
“The fact that Fogler Library received such detailed records from his administration spoke to the idea of transparency,” she said.