Book Investigates Public Transparency Policies

May 1, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s in that food at the supermarket? How safe is that car? What’s in your drinking water? A new book argues that information on risks in everyday life is often incomplete or hard to access and that policies designed to inform the public aren’t working, but could be improved.

The book, “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency,” was based on a multi-year study by Harvard researchers, Archon Fung, David Weil, and Mary Graham, who joins me now. She’s co-director of the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

How about if we first define what you mean by the word “transparency”?

MARY GRAHAM, Author: Well, there was probably never a politician or a corporate executive who didn’t say that they believed in transparency, but what these hundreds of laws do that Congress has passed recently is something different.

It really hones transparency into a very precise tool for reducing some of our most serious public risks: making cars safer, making food healthier. And the way Congress does that is to reach into corporate files and pull out specific facts.

Exactly how much trans-fats is there in a donut? Or how likely is it for a specific model of SUV to roll over? And if they work right, they place those facts, not just in the public domain, but exactly where people are making the choices of what to buy.

And from that point on, the wisdom of crowds is supposed to take over. People make better choices. And as they make better choices, companies feel this irresistible pressure to make cars safer, food healthier, drinking water better, and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: But your point is that somehow this doesn’t work. I mean, these information systems are out there, in various capacities, various degrees, but they don’t work often?

MARY GRAHAM: You know, they can work. First, I just want to say the positive. When they’re well-designed — and this was a surprise to us, as skeptical researchers — they actually can reduce risks. So just placing information in the right place, information we can’t get for ourselves, can…

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s an example?

MARY GRAHAM: There’s no doubt that we radically reduced toxic pollution by requiring companies to reveal that pollution, factory by factory and chemical by chemical. There’s no doubt that the new rollover ratings on SUVs, as imperfect as they may be, have led to safer design of SUVs. And there are many more examples.

Political compromises

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you define the problem, then?

MARY GRAHAM: Well, the problem is really that each transparency law is a political compromise. And so you get these...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean various forces fighting each other for...

MARY GRAHAM: For what information is going to be out, when it's going to be out, where it's going to be located. And in the case of food, you've got the butter lobby against the salt lobby and against the saturated fat lobby. And as a result, you get these information wars, and the public often loses.

JEFFREY BROWN: See, that's what I was curious about, because, in a sense, it often feels like we have too much information. You wonder, is it the information that's lacking, or is it the right information that's lacking? How do you define it?

MARY GRAHAM: Well, you know, I think that public attention is really the scarce commodity now. People simply don't have enough time to make the complicated choices we need to make.

And so it's the obligation of the government, not just to put information in the public domain, but to put it exactly where people can use it, at the time that they're going to use it. And that sort of hasn't happened.

For example, we have a system that's supposed to tell us what's in our drinking water, but that information is a year-and-a-half old. It's completely incomprehensible, even to people with a reasonably good education. And for people who have AIDS or are on chemotherapy or have new babies or really need information about what the contaminants are in their drinking water, it's useless.

Labeling fast-food meals

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the examples you use is about food labeling, of course, a lot of labeling over the past x years, decades. What would you like to see? What's an example to show us how it might work better?

MARY GRAHAM: Well, you know, in the political compromise that produced nutritional labeling, fast food restaurants lobbied their way out of having to put anything on the meals that they serve.

The first thing that probably should happen is that those meals, which are pretty standardized meals, should be labeled. I think that the move toward having restaurants in general label their calories and label at least the harmful fats that are in their foods is also particularly important, at a time when Americans spend about half of their food budget eating outside the home.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you use the phrase "targeted transparency." So the idea would be to take this information and target it to the population that needs it, in a way that they need it? How specifically would it work or does it work when it works well?

MARY GRAHAM: Well, I think there are two solvable problems. One is that the information revolution needs to come to our most important public information systems. And it isn't there yet.

It's ironic that on Amazon you can get quick, accurate, pretty complete information about any book that you want. You can learn what other readers thought about it. But if you try to find information about your drinking water or about a restaurant's safety, you simply can't find it. It's very, very difficult to find. So the first thing, I think, is that the information revolution needs to get to our most important public problems.

But, secondly, we need to change the idea of what public information means. It doesn't just mean disclosing information in the sense of having it in a government file or disclosing information in the sense of having it in an incomprehensible database. We need to have it where people want it.

And what we mean by targeted transparency is that what Congress has been doing in these laws is to say what our goal here is, to improve public health. It's not simply to give the public information.

And we specifically know that heart disease is caused by bad diet. That's the largest cause of heart disease. And, therefore, we're going to put nutritional labeling on packaged foods. And the idea is to reduce the risk of heart disease, so it's targeted in the sense that the goal is very specific.

Worries about overregulation

JEFFREY BROWN: You were referring earlier to the political compromises that's always there. There's always a fine line of those who argue for regulation and those who worry about overregulation. How would that play out?

MARY GRAHAM: Well, you know, I think that this is an example of a kind of law that can bring us together. The conservatives usually like these laws because they protect personal privacy and because they let the market work better. And liberals like these laws because they empower individual choice.

And so there's a kind of natural meeting of the minds. This is a light-handed form of governance. But where it sometimes falls apart is that chemical companies, naturally, or food manufacturers, or auto manufacturers don't want government telling them what information to put in the public domain.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Mary Graham is co-author of "Full Disclosure." Thank you very much.

MARY GRAHAM: Thank you.