President Bush knows the value of transparency. When he took office, transparency was the new administration's buzzword. "We've been increasingly open and transparent,said Vice President Cheney, referring to the discussion of his heart problems. Bush himself told a reporters' roundtable, "There needs to be rule of law, strong accounting procedures, honest and transparent government."
More recently, discussing the need for changes in corporate accountability in the wake of the Enron scandal, Bush has called for a return to "basic capitalism,
which he defined as an economic system that rests on truth and full disclosure. "In a system based on the willingness to take risk, investors need to know the true nature of the risks,
Under the Bush plan, companies will have to disclose critical information more quickly. For example, officers and other insiders would have to notify investors within two days of any stock trades. The proposals also provide serious penalties for misleading shareholders or workers, barring CEOs who "clearly abuse their power
from serving in public companies.
Implicit in all this is the recognition that transparency is good.
So it is all the more puzzling that an administration that hung its hat on transparency is simultaneously doing all it can to prevent the light of public scrutiny from falling on its own decision-making processes.
Even as Bush pushes for greater transparency, Cheney fights to keep the public in the dark about how policy is formulated. Cheney is engaged in a lengthy battle with the General Accounting Office, which was forced to sue the administration to gain access to documents detailing the inner workings of the White House energy task force, which met with dozens of industry reps before proposing controversial changes to national energy policy.
Cheney is claiming executive privilege, which is his right. But it's a right to be exercised with the same restraint as taking the Fifth - just because it's there, you shouldn't use it every time a request for information is made. If one supports transparency, one should realize that other government branches - and the public - have a legitimate interest in understanding how key decisions get made.
Cheney's refusal to share with voters the information and arguments presented by industry execs casts doubt on the whole process. If the information was accurate and the arguments cogent, there is no reason to be coy.
The White House's reticence only reinforces the notion that there were other (campaign contributions?) factors in the decision.
Corporations should welcome greater transparency in DC just as they should on Wall Street, since they have a vested interest in restoring public confidence in major institutions. They should also remember never to say anything behind closed doors that they wouldn't say in an open forum.
- Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.