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Wikileaks among topics at First Global Conference on Transparency Research in Newark

wikileakslogo052011_optBY JOE TYRRELL

The end product of a "Wikileaks World" may not be greater openness or effective repression, but more pervasive "spin."

That is the message a leading British researcher and author brought to the first Global Conference on Transparency Research, being held at Rutgers University-Newark.

"There doesn't seem seem to be much to stop the replication of the Wikileaks business model," said Christopher Hood, the Gladstone professor of government and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

But Hood told 120 academics, activists and policymakers from around the world, other groups can expect the same sort of legal actions, cyber-attacks and economic reprisals that the secretive non-profit felt after releasing of documents and videos embarrassing to governments and corporations.

Those institutions are likely to chart mixed courses of correcting problems, cracking down on whistleblowers or ignoring such revelations, Hood said. But most will likely "depend more and more on spin doctors who can shift the public agenda and create distractions," he said.

The intersection of such issues, and the effectiveness of the many possible responses, is what drew attendees of varied disciplines. backgrounds and outlooks to Newark for frank and useful discussions.

About a quarter of the participants are "practitioners," members of groups seeking access to information, said the organizer, Suzanne Piotrowksi, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But "this is not a pro-transparency conference," she said, "it's a conference of people who thinking critically about these issues,"openness and secrecy, security and honesty, that crop up everywhere from New Jersey to Russia to India.

"It's already a success that we have all these people here," said Ester Filippinyi of the Open Society Institute in Budapest. "We come from different countries, but the problems are quite similar."

When asking for papers, organizers expected perhaps 50 or so, but got almost four times that many, according to Yamini Aiyar of the Accountability Initiative Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

While the major focus is on governments and related entities, many participants are scrutinizing corporations, markets and economic policies. José Vargas Hernández, a professor at the University of Guadalajara's center of economic administration, said everything is related in a country with a heritage of corruption.

But he is equally interested to hear American colleagues explain the startling outcome of the Wall Street economic meltdown. With an economy closely entwined with that of the U.S., Mexicans have previously looked on American markets and justice as being fair and open, Vargas Hernández said.

"How does it happen that those responsible are not only not held accountable, but are rewarded by the government... while the people really hurt are not?" he asked.

The panels show the breadth of the proceedings. At one, Aiyar presented a paper on an accountability program run through the rural redevelopment department in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh; Liang Ma of Xi'an Jiaotong University looked at fiscal transparency in Chinese provincial governments, and David Matkin of Florida State University outlined the retirement health-plan obligations of counties and major cities in that state.

Aside from agreeing that more fiscal disclosure provides a better grasp on the challenges, the presenters described all the programs, and the scrutiny of them, as works in progress.

In Andhra Pradesh, an army of interviewers conducted "audits" of social development programs in villages throughout the state. Based on citizen complaints of fraud and misappropriation, more than 9,000 officials were dismissed or disciplined.

But those fired invariably are low ranking, and a convoluted bureaucratic structure spreads out enforcement responsibility, Aiyar said. Initial support was high, "based on the turnout at public hearings" throughout the state, she said. The next research question will ask if people are satisfied with the results, she said.

While debate has focused on the stability of pension funds, some governments have not included "other post-employment benefits" among their liabilities because they can be cut, and failed to contribute toward them, Matkin said.

The problem typically arises in cities with high public safety costs, but in those places that have responded with cuts, "it came at the cost of general public employees and not public safety employees," he said.

In China, which ranks local on international assessments of government openness, researchers found significant variations among provinces. But they were surprised that these did not correlate with education, urbanization, Internet usage or other characteristics of the population, Ma said.

Official positions and policies had more impact, he said. For instance, provinces where the Governor or other high official is also the Communist Party secretary are better at responding to citizen inquiries, according to the study.

The Chinese study made use of methodologies in other studies, such as one by Piotrowski of New Jersey municipalities. But Nopparathapol Sriboonnark, an assistant professor at Burapha University in Thailand, suggested the Chinese findings reflect "dictatorship," where official attitudes are more important than public demands.

Ma acknowledged transparency research is a new field in his country, and said future reports may compare data with other nations. The research paper notes that in China," even academic researchers have to depend heavily on personal ties (guanxi) with officials to obtain government information."

In Hood's view, one question facing researchers is the focus on official data and laws. Groups following the Wikileaks model of direct release of whistleblower materials might accomplish things "that freedom of information laws have arguably failed to do," he said.

Joe Tyrrell may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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