Pando

Most Americans don't think government transparency matters a damn

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 21, 2015

From The News Desk

Americans aren't convinced government transparency will help journalists do their jobs, make government officials more accountable, or allow citizens to have more influence over the government's actions, a new Pew report claims. People want more transparency; they just don't think it will change much.

Pew sought to discover how Americans view the government's efforts to make more data about its activities, its assessments of various industries, and other areas of interest available to the public. It mostly found self-serving desires (like wanting to see assessments of individual teachers) and a whole lot of apathy.

The report divides Americans into four groups: Ardent Optimists who believe government data can improve their lives; Committed Cynics who access this data but don't believe it will change anything; Buoyant Bystanders who like the idea of government transparency but won't take advantage of it themselves; and Dormant Doubters who don't use this data and don't believe it'll affect anything.

Dormant Doubters were the most common group, with 36 percent of people falling into that category. Next came the Buoyant Bystanders, with 27 percent; Committed Cynics, with 20 percent; and Ardent Optimists, with 17 percent. Like I said at the top: most people don't believe transparency will change much.

But it's not clear how much of that apathy relates to the idea of government data being made available to citizens and how much of it relates to general pessimism about the government really changing in a meaningful way. For instance, people are really interested in learning about government assessments for teachers and hospitals, or about individual citizens' criminal records.

So people are fine with having some information public, and want to be able to learn about things that directly affect them. Knowing that your child's teacher isn't good enough even for the federal government is useful to most everyone; learning the truth about USAID is also important, but it's far less relatable, too.

That's hardly an indictment of government data efforts, or an argument that journalists couldn't find ways to use more of the government's information. It's more like a summation of what most people already suspect: as important as government accountability is, it's much easier to worry about what's happening in your own neighborhood than it is to learn about the United States at large.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]