Mary W. Graham’s research and writing focuses on the politics of public information, the need for a better-informed public, and the historic struggle between government openness and secrecy in the United States. Graham’s latest book, Presidents’ Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Hidden Power chronicles the historic challenge of protecting secrets that are essential to democracy while preventing illicit actions behind closed doors that represent its greatest danger. Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, co-authored with Archon Fung and David Weil, explores public disclosure policies aimed at informing the public about health, safety, environmental, and financial risks. Familiar policies include nutritional labeling, toxic chemical reporting, corporate financial disclosure and auto safety ratings, among many others. At best, transparency policies create a light-handed approach to governance that improves markets, enriches public discourse, and empowers citizens. But, the authors find, such policies are often ineffective or counter-productive. The book outlines the architecture and dynamics that can make transparency policies more effective and sustainable.
In an earlier book, Democracy by Disclosure: The Rise of Technopopulism, Graham offers detailed profiles of disclosure policies aimed at reducing toxic chemical releases, improving public health through better nutrition, and reducing medical errors in hospitals. She argues that these national initiatives represent a remarkable policy innovation. But behind the seemingly simple idea of transparency, political battles rage over protecting trade secrets, gaining market advantage, and guarding privacy and national security. In her first book, The Morning After Earth Day: Practical Environmental Politics, Graham explored the evolution of environmental policies from efforts to control large sources of pollution and protect public lands to the more complex challenges of improving the practices of farmers, homeowners, and neighborhood businesses. Graham has also written for Science magazine, The Atlantic, the Financial Times, Environment magazine, Issues in Science and Technology, and other publications.
Graham co-founded and co-directs the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with Archon Fung, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship, and David Weil, economics professor and former dean of the Brandeis Heller School for Social Policy www.transparencypolicy.net. That website includes a selective list of Graham’s articles and working papers.
Graham grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago’s south side and graduated from Hyde Park High School, where she served as co-editor of the school’s student newspaper. Her interest in government secrecy began when Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered “slum clearance” in the school’s neighborhood where many student families lived. Her interest in journalism was encouraged by English teacher Howard Sloan, who taught writing from Atlantic Monthly articles and by the stellar example of the Hyde Park Herald community newspaper owned by the Sagan family. Her father, Robert W. Wissler, was a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago investigating the links between diet and heart disease. Her mother, Elizabeth Anne Wissler, was a social worker who helped place Chicago children for adoption. Both were birthright Quakers, grew up in small Indiana towns, graduated from Earlham College, and came to the University of Chicago for graduate school on scholarships.
Graham attended Harvard College with a scholarship, majored in Social Studies with a focus on city politics, and served for four years as a reporter for the Harvard Crimson daily newspaper. During the school year she conducted city politics’ research for Professors Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson at the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies. In the summers, Banfield and Wilson sent her around the country to update city politics’ reports for Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and other mid-sized cities. After graduating, Graham served as the Birmingham, Alabama reporter for the Southern Courier, a newspaper founded by Harvard graduates to cover the civil rights movement in the South. She married fellow Harvard Crimson reporter Donald E. Graham, then a U.S. Army private soon sent to Vietnam, and later reporter, sports editor, and publisher of The Washington Post newspaper.
After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center with a J.D. degree, Graham pursued her interest in democratic governance at the federal Office of Management and Budget, then a secretive agency that aimed to resolve disputes among federal departments out of public view. She next worked for Department of Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman on regulatory reform efforts and negotiations with auto companies to put experimental airbags in some passenger cars. After a short stint practicing law to learn about government regulation from a business perspective, Graham turned to writing about governance issues and the challenges of creating a better-informed public. In a series of reports for the Atlantic Monthly, she explored the failure of American families to vaccinate their children, the difference between financial failure for the rich and failure for the poor in the U.S. system of bankruptcy, the promise of remote sensing to create a global sense of shared destiny, and new corporate transparency policies. A parallel interest in the governance of non-profit organizations emerged from board memberships at the MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and other entities.