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Book Investigates Public Transparency Policies

Author Mary Graham discusses her new book, "Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency," on the government's ability and challenges to providing vital information to the public.

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  • 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.