Let’s stop kowtowing to the cult of transparency

The demand that every corner of officialdom be thrown open to public view has only made politics a more deceptive, less principled sphere.

Whenever a policymaker is at a loss for an answer, the demand for more transparency tends to trip off his or her tongue. So in Australia, the prime minister Julia Gillard promises reforms ‘driven by transparency, quality and choice’. The former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, says ‘transparency and competitive neutrality’ are essential. Meanwhile in the US, President Barack Obama says ‘transparency provides information for citizens about what their government is doing’. Transparency has become a political hurrah word.

However, this ‘transparency’ has nothing to do with genuine accountability. It actually short-circuits the process of deliberation that is needed in order to test out the ideas for which politicians and officials will be held to account. In a democratic society, public officials should be held to account for their actions and decisions, not for the manner in which they came to their conclusions.

These days, any official or politician exposed for attempting to exchange his private thoughts with colleagues ‘in confidence’ will be denounced. This is what happened in Britain recently when it was revealed that the office of Michael Gove, the Lib-Con coalition’s education secretary, went to great lengths to communicate through private email exchanges. This is now fairly common practice in many departments of the state, where officials go to great lengths to conceal their discussions from being exposed under Freedom of Information laws. Some policymakers in Britain’s Department of Education clearly decided that they would like to keep their private deliberations just that: private.

As with transparency, almost everyone claims to have tremendous enthusiasm for Freedom of Information laws, at least publicly. In private, however, these laws are experienced as an obstacle to be overcome. So former British prime minister Tony Blair wrote in his memoir that one of his biggest mistakes was to introduce the Freedom of Information Act. He said ‘it is a dangerous act’ because it made it very difficult for a government to debate the serious issues of the day ‘in confidence’. You ‘naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop’ is how he described his own role in the enactment of this legislation.

So why did the Blair government introduce what Blair now considers a dangerous act? For the same reason that every leading politician feels compelled to swear loyalty to the ritual of transparency. When public life is dominated by a mood of suspicion, the institutionalisation of transparency promises to leave little to the imagination.

The advocates of total openness claim that transparency empowers all citizens, since it allows them to hold their governments to account for their actions. They also claim that a regime of full disclosure is the precondition for overcoming public mistrust. So one Twitter-based pro-transparency campaign group claims that it ‘is bringing more transparency to [the] government by tracking ministers of parliament on Twitter and persuading all MPs to tweet’.

Yet experience shows that transparency has turned into a ritual of hypocrisy. Moreover, the institutionalisation of transparency encourages dishonesty and deception, which in turn fuels even more confusion and suspicion. ‘Text me and don’t use the email’ is what many officials tell colleagues who want to have an off-the-record chat.

One acquaintance of mine, who runs a large public-sector organisation, boasts that he writes the minutes of the discussion before the meeting and takes great care to ensure that nothing which might later be ‘misinterpreted’ gets recorded. Like all sensible people, he understands that virtually any innocent remark or proposal can be interpreted as a statement of malevolent intent when taken out of context. A half-baked idea raised by a junior official in passing can appear as evidence of the ‘real agenda’ when circulated by bloggers or in a newspaper column.

The imperative of transparency forces people to be always on guard. It often leads people to avoid giving an honest opinion. These days, people write letters of reference with an eye to possible legal consequences. Such letters of reference often avoid critical remarks and rely on vague euphemisms to communicate the idea that the person under discussion may not quite be an Einstein. That is because letters, like internal memoranda, can now be made available to the public through Freedom of Information laws, and consequently a new regime of self-censorship prevails. Is it any surprise that academics don’t take too seriously the letters that they send to each other and sometimes phone each other to find out their ‘real opinion’?

The ethos of transparency encourages a climate of organisational caution and conformity. It discourages the clash of opinions and diminishes the potential for the open clarification of problems. That is because people are unlikely to take risks and disclose their real concerns when they know they are effectively doing so in front of the whole world. In such an environment, people have little incentive to acknowledge mistakes, and typically we see the emergence of regimes of responsibility-aversion. It is difficult for individuals to throw out ideas or express unconventional views when they court being ridiculed or stigmatised by their public critics, who have no stake in the outcome of their deliberations.

The chief accomplishment of the cult of transparency is to eliminate informal exchanges of views and to abolish the exchange of confidences. And without the exchange of confidences, it is not possible for people to have real confidence in their colleagues and in the organisations that employ them. The present confusion between accountability for decisions and accountability for institutional behaviour is symptomatic of a political culture of voyeurism, which thrives on leaks and gossip. A democratic society should understand that it is important to uphold the right to the private exchange of views and that not everything officials do ought to be visible to all.

Back in 1946, George Orwell reminded us that in his time ‘political speech and writing [were] largely the defence of the indefensible’. It was words such as transparency that he had in mind, when he said that ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’. When politicians who, in their heart of hearts, understand the perils of transparency still insist on performing its rituals, the corruption of thought is clearly no less a problem in 2011 than it was in Orwell’s time. And by the way, tweeting MPs do not strike a blow for democracy – they are merely evidence that our politicians have too much time on their hands.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) A version of this article was originally published in the Australian on 1 October.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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