I was on a conference call the other day discussing how we were going to handle a selection process. The discussion was heated, as there were multiple good ways to handle the process. One of the participants however was adamant about only one thing, “what ever we do, the process has to be transparent. I am for total transparency, the more the better.”
Advocating for transparency is like advocating for world peace, environmental sustainability, or freedom. On the surface it seems like it’s a good thing something we all should have.
If only the issue of transparency were so simple. The discussion got me thinking about the issue of transparency and the observation that it is not as simple as it seems. Then I read an article entitled Transparency for All that highlights the darker side of the issue.
Here are a few thoughts
Transparency requires knowledge and ability
Information is power. This is a basis for transparency advocates who see access and information as a leveling function. However without the ability to use that knowledge, information remains raw data and becomes a basis for distortion, exaggeration and misuse. That is the basis for the other adage “lies, lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Giving information to someone who does not know how to use it does not create an informed
Transparency benefits those with resources and punishes the have not’s
Transparency provides information that represents potential benefits. Realizing those benefits requires resources and while the cost of those resources is declining rapidly on the information front (e.g. social media, crowd sourcing, etc.). But information along is not action. The cost of turning that information into action remains and that gives those with resources the advantage.
Transparency does not require accountability.
A good not only resolves issues and creates value; it does so in ways that create accountability. Without accountability too much of a good thing devolves and tears down rather than building things up. This is one of the issues with Wikileaks as it releases information and seeks to say that it is accountable by your using the leaked inflation to hold others accountable.
Transparency is not elastic
Transparency is not elastic in the send that more transparency is not necessarily better. Sure it is better to share information with people. Information builds trust, creates the basis for coordinated action. But making everything transparent does not make everything better; transparency needs to be tempered with discretion. There are somethings that should remain private, not hidden or forgotten, just private. Not to protect the guilty but to protect people’s legitimate privacy. That discretion comes from knowledge, ability and acting responsibly and with integrity.
These points do not mean that transparence does not matter. They are not an argument for giving into the establishment or curtailing our skepticism and vigilance. No it means that we all have to recognize the reality of transparency.
Transparency realities — it’s a mean not the end to itself
If in reading this post you think that I am against transparency, then please think again.
I believe that transparency is a good thing. It opens systems. It creates opportunities by increasing the flow of information. It reduces opportunity for people to hide. It increases information that fuels new ideas and innovation. All of these things are possible with lower levels of transparency, but they are much harder and deliver muted results.
What I believe we really want, and what those who blindly say that they want as much transparency as possible, is the outcomes that transparency facilitates. They want the knowledge, abilities, responsibility and level playing field all of which are good. All of which require more than information, they require putting that information into action.
Transparency is a catalyst for those things, but it is up to us to turn that potential into reality by doing more than just asking for information.
What do you think?
What has to happen to turn transparency from a popular buzzword and massive data dumps into the desired reforms and outcomes?