Mitch Daniels’ dystopian nightmare

A world where citizens have so much information that they can question government decisions

Fans of superhero fiction, rejoice: You no longer have to wait for the 2019 release of “Avengers 4” to explore alternate universes.

In an Aug. 13 column for The Washington Post, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels introduces us to the imaginary realm of excessive government transparency in which he resides. It’s a fanciful place where policymakers would make better decisions and hire smarter people if only information wasn’t so gosh-darn accessible to nosy citizens.

As a result of America’s “obsession with transparency,” he writes, “government has been rendered less nimble, less talented and less effective.”

It is entirely unsurprising to hear this sentiment from Daniels, who engineered a backroom deal to amend Indiana’s disclosure laws so Purdue could secretly acquire for-profit education giant Kaplan and maintain it as a supposedly “separate” corporation exempt from public scrutiny.

To Daniel’s insistence that complying with open-government laws makes governing more difficult, the tempting glib response is, “How would you know?”

Higher-education leaders talk incessantly about their enthusiasm for civic engagement, when “civic engagement” means collecting canned food for charity. But when citizens actually try to participate in government decision-making, those same administrators suddenly lose their appetite for engagement.

So it is with Daniels, the former Indiana governor, who is especially scornful of the use of freedom-of-information laws to disclose conversations that public employees would prefer to keep hidden. (Cynics might suspect that Daniels’ distaste originates from his own embarrassing history with journalistic scrutiny of his emails, a history that the Post might healthfully have noted for its readers’ benefit.)

But let’s strip off Daniels’ virtual-reality goggles and return to the real world.

​Does Daniels wish that the felonious Kwame Kilpatrick had remained mayor of Detroit? Because it was only through access to his text messages that reporters from the Detroit newspapers were able to demonstrate that Kilpatrick used city funds to facilitate his extramarital affairs, unearthing a trove of official misconduct that sent him to prison.

Would Daniels like the Los Angeles school system to give back the savings realized when the ineffectiveness of a wasteful plan to buy $1.3 billion worth of unnecessary iPads came to light after journalists obtained school officials’ emails?

Is Daniels sorry that his hometown newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, was able to expose a nationwide epidemic of sexual abuse of young gymnasts by blanketing a dozen states with requests for government officials’ correspondence, a trail that eventually led to the prosecution of serial predator Larry Nassar?

In short, should we sacrifice an honest government that keeps its citizens safe so public officials can be spared the embarrassment of having their decisions second-guessed? Because that’s the tradeoff Daniels is proposing.

Daniels’ nostalgia for a fondly remembered past when government officials were free to hold candid conversations outside the earshot of inquisitive busybodies is a fantasy. By any objective measure, government is far more secretive today than it was a generation ago.

Conversations that once took place in public have migrated to undetectable chat apps. Entire categories of formerly public documents, such as mugshots of federal prisoners, have been declared off-limits. Federal judges have distorted student privacy law to nonsensical extremes, enabling public schools and colleges to conceal nearly everything they do. “Terrorism” and “safety” have become catch-all excuses to withhold even the most routine information about police agencies. And nearly every state has gutted its open-government laws so that state university presidents can be hired in total secrecy.

Most disturbingly, the past two decades have seen great judicial retrenchment in the free-speech rights that once protected government employees’ ability to speak candidly about their jobs. Government P.R. managers have taken advantage of this retrenchment to impose rigid controls on what agency employees say to journalists, a practice that the Society of Professional Journalists has condemned as “Censorship by Public-Information Office.”

Daniels may be right that the quality of government job applicants and of the government decision-making process has declined — but that decline coincides with the rise of image-motivated secrecy, certainly not runaway transparency.

In one way, Daniels’ column represents a valuable public service. He has documented what many long suspected to be true: That when state university presidents confer by phone to make clandestine decisions, they consciously avoid creating a paper trail to keep the public from finding out what they’re up to. (“I’m rarely on a conference call with other public university presidents,” Daniels writes, “that doesn’t include someone reminding the group: ‘No emails!’”)

If you are a public employee, and you find yourself doing something that you believe the public would find inexplicable if it were disclosed, then you should immediately stop doing it. To borrow a phrase from the software industry, the inability to make secret deals intolerable to the public is not a “bug” in open-government law — it’s a feature.