A longtime government watcher told me recently that she’s becoming overwhelmed with the volume of information and self-echoing commentary on “government transparency,” in the form of official blogs, citizen blogs, Twitter streams, conferences, and even in the pages of those quaint things called “books.”
Save some time. Here is the only piece you need to read about the subject of government openness, with all its implications for honest policy, court politics, and citizen empowerment. And as you might expect, it’s a fairy tale.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Go on, read it – you haven’t read it since childhood, have you? It’s short, so after you finish it take a moment, if you like, to comment back with your thoughts.
The full text follows, translated from Kejserens nye Klæder, by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen. There’s also an intellectually annotated version here at SurLaLune, by Information Science scholar Heidi Ann Heiner.
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Once upon a time there lived a vain Emperor whose only worry in life was to dress in elegant clothes. He changed clothes almost every hour and loved to show them off to his people.
Word of the Emperor’s refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond. Two scoundrels who had heard of the Emperor’s vanity decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves at the gates of the palace with a scheme in mind. “We are two very good tailors and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.”
The chief of the guards heard the scoundrel’s strange story and sent for the court chamberlain. The chamberlain notified the prime minister, who ran to the Emperor and disclosed the incredible news. The Emperor’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to see the two scoundrels. “Besides being invisible, your Highness, this cloth will be woven in colors and patterns created especially for you.” The emperor gave the two men a bag of gold coins in exchange for their promise to begin working on the fabric immediately. “Just tell us what you need to get started and we’ll give it to you.” The two scoundrels asked for a loom, silk, gold thread and then pretended to begin working.
The Emperor thought he had spent his money quite well: in addition to getting a new extraordinary suit, he would discover which of his subjects were ignorant and incompetent. A few days later, he called the old and wise prime minister, who was considered by everyone as a man with common sense. “Go and see how the work is proceeding,” the Emperor told him, “and come back to let me know.” The prime minister was welcomed by the two scoundrels. “We’re almost finished, but we need a lot more gold thread. Here, Excellency! Admire the colors, feel the softness!”
The old man bent over the loom and tried to see the fabric that was not there. He felt cold sweat on his forehead. “I can’t see anything,” he thought. “If I see nothing, that means I’m stupid, or worse, incompetent!” If the prime minister admitted that he didn’t see anything, he would be discharged from his office. “What a marvelous fabric, he said then. “I’ll certainly tell the Emperor.”
The two scoundrels rubbed their hands gleefully. They had almost made it. More thread was requested to finish the work. Finally, the Emperor received the announcement that the two tailors had come to take all the measurements needed to sew his new suit. “Come in,” the Emperor ordered. Even as they bowed, the two scoundrels pretended to be holding large roll of fabric. “Here it is your Highness, the result of our labor,” the scoundrels said. “We have worked night and day but, at last, the most beautiful fabric in the world is ready for you. Look at the colors and feel how fine it is.”
Of course the Emperor did not see any colors and could not feel any cloth between his fingers. He panicked and felt like fainting. But luckily the throne was right behind him and he sat down. But when he realized that no one could know that he did not see the fabric, he felt better.
Nobody could find out he was stupid and incompetent. And the Emperor didn’t know that everybody else around him thought and did the very same thing. The farce continued as the two scoundrels had foreseen it. Once they had taken the measurements, the two began cutting the air with scissors while sewing with their needles an invisible cloth. “Your Highness, you’ll have to take off your clothes to try on your new ones.” The two scoundrels draped the new clothes on him and then held up a mirror. The Emperor was embarrassed but since none of his bystanders were, he felt relieved. “Yes, this is a beautiful suit and it looks very good on me,” the Emperor said trying to look comfortable. “You’ve done a fine job.”
“Your Majesty,” the prime minister said, “we have a request for you. The people have found out about this extraordinary fabric and they are anxious to see you in your new suit.” The Emperor was doubtful showing himself naked to the people, but then he abandoned his fears. After all, no one would know about it except the ignorant and the incompetent. “All right,” he said. “I will grant the people this privilege.” He summoned his carriage and the ceremonial parade was formed.
A group of dignitaries walked at the very front of the procession and anxiously scrutinized the faces of the people in the street. All the people had gathered in the main square, pushing and shoving to get a better look. Applause welcomed the regal procession. Everyone wanted to know how stupid or incompetent his or her neighbor was but, as the Emperor passed, a strange murmur rose from the crowd. Everyone said, loud enough for the others to hear: “Look at the Emperor’s new clothes. They’re beautiful!” “What a marvelous train!” “And the colors, the colors of that beautiful fabric, I have never seen anything like it in my life!”
They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the clothes, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.
A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage. “The Emperor is naked,” he said.
“Fool!” his father reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed his child and took him away.
But the boy’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried: “The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!”
The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent.
So he stood, stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle, carrying the train that wasn’t really there.
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Filed under: Government, Society | Tagged: politics, Obama, Government, bureaucracy, Twitter, citizens, books, policy, power, government 2.0, gov20, transparency, barcamp, gov, Hans Christian Andersen, Emperor, glasnost, SurLaLune, Heidi Ann Heiner, bureaucrat | 3 Comments »