Recently I was reading a book to my kids about the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 when a remarkable fact jumped out: The delegates conducted their work in absolute secrecy. This was one of the only ground rules of the convention, and not until James Madison’s death in 1840 did his notes reveal the content of many discussions that took place.
It’s very possible the Constitution — and this nation itself — would not exist as we know it had the deliberations been subject to public scrutiny.
States were deeply divided over issues like proportional representation and the reach of federal power, so heated discussion on a public scale could very well escalate differences beyond the point of no return. But in the cone of silence that was the Statehouse in Philadelphia, these problems were resolved, and the result was a governing document that, while not perfect (it took almost a century to abolish slavery and longer to give women the right to vote), was the most perfect the world had ever seen.
What would have happened if Julian Assange had been lurking outside the Statehouse, ready to post on WikiLeaks the latest dust-up between Edmund Randolph and William Paterson over allocation of representation between large and small states? Or if Charles Pinckney tweeted his views in an effort to win popular sentiment? What if Madison live-blogged the debates, and pundits squared off on cable talk shows to rip the proceedings?
Of course, we’ll never know the answers to these questions. But one point is clear: In the more than two centuries since our founders met to write the Constitution, things have changed. Our political culture has developed an expectation of transparency, and government leaders can no longer rely on secrecy as they do their work. Open-meetings and freedom-of-information laws compel public officials to conduct their business in the open, and technology ensures that almost anyone can access that information instantaneously.
Such intense scrutiny undoubtedly makes life difficult for public officials. Providing adequate notice of meetings and ensuring public access to deliberations create more work, to be sure. In some cases, the revelation of internal communications can cause inconvenience or embarrassment. But this is the price every government official must be willing to pay for the honor of serving in a position of public trust.
Widespread public scrutiny of government activity is the logical outgrowth of a society where the power of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. In this country, transparency is not negotiable.
The occasional anarchist (perhaps Julian Assange) may try to use such information to sow chaos, pit people against one another and undermine important relationships. Yet the enemy here is not information, but those who would use it for destructive purposes.
Like the proceedings in Philadelphia, many deliberations are sensitive in nature and rely on good-faith efforts to reach the right outcome. But unlike the proceedings in Philadelphia, they can no longer be held in secret.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”