What is unfortunate about David Sarokin and Jay Schulkin’s “Missed Information” – despite repeated references to the “information is power” refrain throughout the book – is that the reader is unlikely to learn new information or knowledge. For the thesis is a straightforward one: That the flow of complete information improves decision-making and the efficiency of systems, and therefore greater transparency is needed from corporations and the government to improve the supply of information, as individuals articulate the demand for information. The authors go on to detail American mechanisms which can bring about change, for instance, in healthcare (which “suffers from profound information failures at every stage of administration and delivery), in financial and sustainability reporting (that “almost all annual financial reports are … silent on many important financial details of a company’s performance”, and summarising their arguments as “better information = better economic performance = a more sustainable world”), and in the government (which holds tonnes of data, yet remains accountable to the people it serves).
And with a higher supply of information through these mechanisms, individuals will then respond. Ultimately “whether there actually is a reaction is up to the billions of individuals consumers making trillions of discrete choices”. In this vein, the self-interest of information providers should be triggered, such that they are incentivised to make information more accessible.
Perhaps the most powerful chapter in the book is the one on the openness and secrecy of government bureaucracies. The need for balance between security and privacy is oft-cited, but Sarokin and Schulkin intelligently mooted the need for another form of balance and trust, “between government agencies and the public they serve” through a hyper-transparent system. Leaked information about how the American government has been collecting information and keeping secrets needs to be balanced. And cognisant of the administrative challenges, nonetheless, the suggestion to “set a time limit on secrecy, routinely apply it to all records, then make the information public once the time limit has been passed” makes sense. The gulf between “intent and actuality when it comes to making government data publicly available”, moreover, is present in Singapore too. No Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exists here, and although the government has released more data, many datasets are not sufficiently granular or contextualised.
In fact, a key argument against the FOIA in Singapore is the concern that knowledge that government documents can be requested or made public would lead to politicians or policy-makers checking or censoring themselves during internal discussions – especially on contentious issues – and thereby reduce the quality or authenticity of contributions. “Missed Information” makes a convincing counter-argument, in my opinion, on this concern. “Severely restraining the flow of information is the hallmark of tyranny”, and they add that “if government employees knew with certainty that every [government document] would soon be in the public domain, most of them would pay considerable attention to how those materials might look to an outside observer. The content of the materials would probably change, and so might the content of government actions. Sunshine is the best disinfectant”.
But otherwise the book is a little too rudimentary, too touch-and-go, and too disorganised. Too rudimentary, because the core concepts about information, mentioned in the beginning – from its emergence to its contribution to better decisions and to the costs of deliberate secrecy, for example – are already well-established. Too touch-and-go, because Sarokin and Schulkin move swiftly from one sector to another mechanism, even though each is characterised by a great deal of complexity, and where information is no less important. Better structure between and within the chapters would have also improved the organisation of the arguments, which are a tad messy. And too disorganised, likewise, because “Missed Information” tries to cover too much ground, and missed opportunities to expound upon the implementation of their proposals, as well as the practical limitations.