The dogma of ‘transparency’

Learning more about what goes on behind closed doors won't solve the social and political problems that face us. In fact, the obsession with disclosure only reinforces distrust in society.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

The term ‘transparency’ is ubiquitous today. The word trips off the tongues of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, bankers, radical NGO activists, technology gurus, almost anyone who seeks to be taken seriously.

‘Transparency’ can now be found in an extraordinary variety of contexts. After setting up a Google alert for ‘transparency’ a few months ago, I was surprised to see not only the high number of links every day, but also the diverse assortment of topics: hospital performance, hedge funds, police conduct, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, consumer protection, California’s state budget, military spending, organic food labels, voter registration, Chinese toys, oil exploration, Espicopal church finances, European Union decision-making. I even learned that, according to sports website ESPN, it’s now ‘media nirvana’ to cover the New York Yankees, because the baseball team’s new front-office, led by the outspoken Hank Steinbrenner, ‘operates with such transparency’.

The rise of ‘transparency’ is recent and rapid. The word has been around since at least the fifteenth century according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but until recently it wasn’t used that often in the humanities or popularly. Most agree that transparency’s current usage only began to take off in the 1990s (although there is uncertainty about where it originated; some say it came from management jargon, others find its roots in interpersonal therapy). Since then it has grown and grown in prevalence, to the point where Webster’s New World College Dictionary named ‘transparency’ as its Word of the Year for 2003.

Some argue that the idea of transparency has a long lineage, that it is just a linguistic alternative to similar phrases used in the past, such as ‘openness’ or ‘freedom of information’ (introduced in US legislation in the 1960s). But this is reading history backwards. In fact, the basic meaning of transparency has changed. Traditionally, transparency’s primary definition has been ‘perviousness to light’, which is fairly neutral. Today, however, the term is loaded with moral connotations. Transparency is unambiguously a Good Thing, and upheld as one of society’s virtues. The widespread use of the term often goes unremarked upon precisely because it’s become conventional wisdom to seek greater transparency in social life.

Indeed, transparency is more than just a descriptive term bandied about. It is an ideal, a goal, something that is actively strived for. For example, international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and IMF, demand transparency within developing country regimes as a condition for aid. Radical NGOs campaign for transparency in the developing countries and within the IFIs. The most high-profile organisation campaigning against corruption worldwide is even called Transparency International.

Transparency is also an active term among regulatory bodies, where it is deployed as a tool for public policy ends. Financial regulatory agencies, such as the SEC in the US or the FSA in Britain, require transparency via disclosure rules to protect investors. The US Department of Homeland Security seeks to be transparent about the threat of terrorism by means of its (much-derided) color-coded warning system. Governments enact legislation to compel schools to disclose performance scores in the name of transparency and with the aim of improving education.

* * *

For the past decade or so, transparency has been addressed by specialists within certain areas, with discussions often remaining within professional silos. But, reflecting the growth in the term’s use, transparency itself is now recognised as a general theme worthy of analysis. Indeed, there is now a burgeoning field of ‘transparency studies’ within academia, not to mention a ‘transparency industry’ of professionals putting it all into practice. Two recently published books provide a good insight into the state of the discussion, and also unintentionally highlight how transparency can be a problem.

The Right to Know is a collection of essays by academics and public-policy thinkers that focus on how much, and what kind of, information governments and other major institutions should disclose. It is global in scope, but it emphasises changes in the developing world – in fact, all of its case studies are from emerging markets (India, China, Central and Eastern Europe, and Nigeria). In addition, the book examines the issue of transparency thematically, covering transparency in business and international financial institutions, disclosure of environmental risks, and national security concerns, among others.

The book’s introductory chapter by the editor, Ann Florini of the National University of Singapore and the Brookings Institution, highlights a growing movement towards greater disclosure: ‘India, South Africa, the UK, Japan, Mexico and a host of countries all have adopted major freedom information laws; intergovernmental organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF have adopted sweeping new disclosure policies; and hundreds of multinational corporations have adopted voluntary codes that require them to disclose a wide range of information about their environmental, labour and other practices.’ Despite this trend, Florini claims that ‘publicly useful information is generally underprovided’. The book’s contributors generally share Florini’s outlook: although there is some discussion of the potential limits on disclosure (say, for national security reasons or to protect trade secrets), most identify shortfalls in current disclosure regimes and put forward arguments for greater openness.

Underlying the various arguments, Florini writes, is a ‘fundamental moral claim’ – that transparency is related with democracy. In fact, Florini believes transparency can be considered a question of human rights: ‘A human rights argument combines pragmatic and moral claims, seeing access to information as both a fundamental human right and a necessary concomitant of the realisation of all other rights.’

However, the assumption that transparency and democracy go hand-in-hand, which many of the book’s contributors champion, needs to be challenged. A good example is the movement in the West against alleged corruption in Third World regimes. Florini admits that ‘often demands for greater transparency go with a push to crack down on corruption’, and I would go further and argue that combating corruption is the most prominent way in which transparency campaigns express themselves.

These campaigns are actually problematic from the perspective of enhancing democratic rights. For a start, an organisation like Transparency International bases its conclusions about the extent of corruption on ‘perceptions’, using, for example, attitude surveys rather than hard statistics (1). But moreover, these campaigns, whether led by international financial institutions or Western NGOs, trample on national sovereignty in the name of fighting corruption; indeed, if transparency is a ‘human rights’ issue, it arguably overrides national borders.

Proponents argue that transparency will bring greater accountability. But in the developing world, the question is, greater accountability to whom? Opening up government spending to unelected NGOs is not the same thing as democratic accountability. It simply gives international financial institutions more control over their ‘conditionalities’, which are actually more about policy prioritisation than the sums of money spent. The result is greater subordination of sovereignty to the IFIs and Western powers.

Transparency is a device to prove government corruption and thereby assists Western powers in discrediting governments they would like to see replaced. Conversely, it is used to legitimise governments that they want to strengthen that are not at all democratic. For example, Rwanda under Paul Kagame is a murderous dictatorship that has assassinated prominent opposition figures and overturned a democratic constitution that the previous government introduced under Western tutelage in 1991. But the Rwandan government is celebrated as one of the most transparent in Africa (and as the one most committed to women’s empowerment with many women ministers), but it is arguably the least democratic on the continent.

At the same time, as a chapter by Thomas Blanton discusses, radical organisations try to turn the tables and call for the IMF and World Bank to be more transparent. However, the potential to strengthen democratic accountability through such campaigns is questionable. Radicals who attack these IFIs have a tendency to become co-opted into them; in fact the calls for these organisations to be more open, first aired in the protests of Seattle and Genoa in the late 1990s, are really calls for seats at the table, to join the club.

More to the point, the focus on these institutions tends to overstate their autonomy from governments and fetishise them in line with fashionable globalisation theories. A true democratic movement would influence decisions on government spending and IFI policy without needing to look at their books and knowing every word uttered in closed-door meetings. Campaigning for IFI transparency might have radical appeal, but it is entirely consistent with an apolitical or even anti-political approach. In particular, it avoids political debate about what these institutions’ role should be with regard to global economic progress.

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Full Disclosure adopts a different angle on transparency. Its co-authors are two Harvard University professors, Archon Fung and Mary Graham, and a Boston University professor, David Weil. The stated aim of their book is to explore the question ‘can government legislate transparency policies that reduce risks to health, safety, and financial stability, or improve the performance of major institutions such as schools, hospitals, and banks?’

The foundation of the authors’ research consists of 18 case studies, including disclosure of chemical hazards; nutritional information; sex offenders’ residences; restaurant hygiene; terrorism threats; election campaign contributions; school performance; disease outbreaks; and labeling of genetically modified food. The authors found that diverse transparency policies share common features and represent a ‘single policy innovation’. Many of these policies were unsuccessful in meeting their stated aims, and that even ones that were initially doing well grew weaker over time. Effective transparency, they argue, connects information with action: ‘Targeted policies were effective only when they provided facts that people wanted in times, places, and ways that enabled them to act. That is, effective policies were those that succeeded in embedding new information in users’ and disclosers’ existing decision-making routines.’

The best aspect of the book is the detail contained in the case studies. But, as the authors’ discussion of effectiveness indicates, a drawback is that the authors are mainly interested in the practical question of ‘does it work?’, rather than questioning whether the end is worthwhile in itself (which could also impact effectiveness). For example, consider the case study on disclosure of sex offenders’ residences in the US (known as ‘Megan’s Law’, after a seven year-old girl who was raped and murdered by a released sex offender). They note that ‘since the passage of these laws in the 1990s, some individuals have used that information to harass offenders, to force them to move out of their homes, or in several extreme cases to murder them’. Yet the authors do not debate whether such a public policy goal is socially desirable, nor even whether public safety improves; they simply analyze whether offenders indeed comply. They do not really consider that some transparency policies might have no chance of succeeding because they are irrational in themselves, rather than being due to poor implementation.

Another consequence of the emphasis on effectiveness is that the authors do not spend much time attempting to explain the rise of transparency policies. They do briefly offer three long-term trends: that conventional forms of government intervention, such as standards-based regulatory systems, are not well-suited for the new kinds of risk-based policy; the increasing power of the computers and the Internet; and skepticism about the capacity of government to solve problems. The first and third of these trends are worth exploring further (the second is mundane), but the authors don’t do that in the book.

Looking over the list of case studies covered, it seems that common themes are risks, fear and safety. What’s interesting is how the transparency approach tends to increase rather than allay those concerns. For example, consider food labeling. Insisting that producers provide more information about the nutritional value or ingredients of food seems like a pragmatic, neutral solution for the authorities to take (rather than say ban or put stern warnings on ‘bad’ foods). Yet simply the act of introducing this new information – in the general climate today – alerts shoppers that something must be suspect about this, even if it is perfectly healthy and safe.

There are other factors at play too. In response to threats of terror and epidemics, there is a strong element of blame avoidance on the part of public authorities: if, in the name of transparency, they keep issuing alerts and guidelines, and conduct contingency planning in the full glare of publicity, then nobody can say that they weren’t warned. The preparations for the – supposedly – imminent global flu pandemic have that character.

Transparency policies are also part of the wider ‘audit culture’ which emerged from the financial scandals of the early 1990s and then extended to other areas of society, particularly public services. Disclosure of hospital (and even individual surgeon) performance data is part of the wider ideology of consumer choice and the drive to impose new forms of regulation and accountability on professionals. Michael Power, in his book The Audit Society, makes the point that these oversight processes tend to encourage people to put their trust in third parties, with the effect of creating a spiral of mistrust between citizen and professional (2). In other words, although transparency is often introduced in the name of restoring trust, it often has the opposite effect.

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Transparency and its absence become a means of understanding almost any issue today. Name a social or political ailment, and more often than not a lack of transparency will be identified as the root cause. And the answer to the problem is greater transparency. Take the Iraq war. It’s often said that the Bush administration wasn’t transparent about its evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and misled the country into war, and it now needs to be more open about its intelligence.

This sounds like a sharp critique, but a lack of transparency isn’t the issue in Iraq. More importantly, it is an evasion of responsibility. Before the invasion of Iraq, it was clear to anyone who looked that the Bush allegations of WMDs in the country were bogus; the idea that politicians who supported the invasion were fooled is a cop-out.

More generally, focusing on a lack of transparency feeds into conspiracy theories. We don’t see everything, so there could always be something going on behind the scenes. (‘What did Cheney really say when he met with those oil executives?’ ‘Were the Bush family in cahoots with the Saudis?’, etc.) In fact, the emphasis on what we don’t yet know – the non-transparent – indirectly validates what is known. ‘The real problem is what we don’t know’ implies that what we do know is acceptable. In reality, on the basis of what’s already disclosed, we know enough to make judgments; we don’t have to wait until all is revealed.

The key to understanding why the transparency argument carries so much moral weight today is its opposite – secrecy. We are uncomfortable with secrecy and informal relations, especially if exercised by people at work or within institutions (as distinct from our own personal privacy). We assume that what goes on behind closed doors is negative. Ultimately, the transparency ideology derives its appeal from the wider sense that people, when away from the glare of publicity, are capable of being corrupted. It is founded on the belief our fellow citizens can’t be trusted. This approach leads to reducing discussions of political and economic institutions to matters of individuals – corrupt individuals. Disagree with the global warming orthodoxy? Then you must be from a shady lobbying group; where do you get your funding from anyway? (3)

When public figures stand up and say ‘we will ensure that such-and-such operates with transparency and accountability’, we are supposed to feel reassured. It seems like that will be the end of the story. But transparency is an ever-elusive goal: it’s not like you have it and then it’s over. Full transparency in social life is impossible, it’s a demand that can never be fully met. And so the pursuit of transparency always holds out the possibility that someone, somewhere, ‘out there’, is doing something to our detriment.

The ideology of transparency has, as one author puts its, a ‘quasi-religious’ character (4). It presents the view that openness is inherently virtuous – in all contexts, in society generally. It’s time to stop being blinded by all this talk about letting in more sunshine, and knock the purveyors of this holier-than-thou creed off their high horse.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The Right to Know: Transparency for an Open World, edited by Ann Florini, is published by Columbia University Press, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency, by Archon Fung, Mary Graham and David Weil is published by Cambridge University Press, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Corruptababble, by Ceri Dingle

(2) The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, by Michael Power, Oxford University Press, 1997

(3) Paul Wolfowitz and the politics of corruption, by Matthias Heitmann

(4) Christopher Hood, ‘Transparency in Historical Perspective’, in Transparency: The Key to Better Governance?, Oxford University Press, 2006

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