Transparency Is Seldom Transparent!

Naked may not be a great look for everyone, but it’s a perfect look for government.  And when it comes to government, naked means being fully, drop-your-drawers-down transparent.  Yet there probably isn’t a more maligned and overused word in politics than transparency. Every citizen wants it, every politician promises it and almost no one gets it. So what I’ve written about in my books and taught in my courses, I now proselytize here in this blog — to spread the “gospel of transparency”.

If we as citizens want transparency in our government, then we have to know what to ask for and recognize when we get it. If those who we elect are serious about transforming government through greater transparency, then they have to know what it is they’re trying to achieve and recognize when they’ve accomplished their goal. We very seldom get transparency in government — local or otherwise — because so few have taken the time to define transparency in government.

Added to this lack of definitional clarity is a plethora of misunderstanding when it comes to distinguishing between the simplicity of disclosure and the complexity of transparency.  Often the terms are used interchangeably or as equivalent terms, yet nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the failure to distinguish between the two only further obscures the real meaning of transparency and thus further hinders its attainment. In the end then, we as citizens are either short-changed or hoodwinked into thinking we’ve achieved true transparency in government.

So, before I launch my weekly tirades into open and honest government, allow me to provide in this first column, some clarity and clear up some misunderstandings.  First, let’s be clear, right from the beginning, that you and I and every American citizen have a right to full transparency regarding any facet of our government. It’s not a question of what but when. Almost all information about our government should be made accessible as it becomes available—we have the tools to do that. What remains, information that would be classified as sensitive, should be made accessible when it becomes prudent to do so within a reasonable period of time.

Any magician worth his or her salt is good at the arts of deception and diversion, and a politician is like a magician in a business suit. Often what is sold as transparency is simply the deceptive or diversionary tactic of making disclosure appear to be transparency. But wait—aren’t they the same, disclosure and transparency? On the contrary, they are quite distinctive. If we’re to discuss transparency, we must objectively come up with a comprehensive definition that will be immediately recognizable and widely accepted. You know, like distinguishing a duck from, say, a kangaroo. We need the quack, the waddle, and the webbed feet, or we don’t have a duck. We need obvious characteristics and discernible boundaries and we need to establish the distinction between disclosure and transparency.

Disclosure, by definition, is simply making information known—be it new, secret, interesting, boring, extensive, trite, whatever.  It is the simple act of disclosing so many facts and figures and you can’t begin to have real transparency if any of the elements of disclosure are missing. However, what often passes for transparency, what government officials would like you to think is transparency, is merely a bunch of facts and figures—and sometimes not very good facts and figures. Seldom do we get the mechanisms and processes that drive those facts and figures or show us how they were arrived at: the meeting minutes, the decision trees, emails, phone calls, and so on. And here’s the real kicker: when all is said and done, even if we get the facts, figures, mechanisms, and processes, what we have been given is still only disclosure.

Those facts, figures, mechanisms, and processes (disclosure) have to be presented in a way that is accessible and comprehensible. In other words, those who are affected by governmental decisions—in particular, citizens—must be able to get to the information easily (accessibility) and understand what they’re looking at (comprehensibility). That might seem obvious to you and me, but it seems to be rocket science to those in government charged with the responsibility to provide transparency.

Finally, there’s one more criterion, and it’s critical to achieving full transparency from disclosure. The information must be presented in such a way that citizens actually want to examine it. In other words, it must be enticing. It has to be presented in a way that’s interesting, intriguing, and relevant— citizens must want to buy into it! If transparency isn’t interesting enough to drive civic engagement, then what’s the point? Hint: There is none!

This is why enticement is so critical to achieving full disclosure from transparency. It is the raison d'être of transparency. It is why we go through the trouble of bringing about transparency out of the morass of disclosure in the first place. Think of it this way: we must ACE disclosure (make it Accessible, Comprehensible, and Enticing) in order to get transparency. So now, let’s take a flier at a common and comprehensive definition of transparency:

 The principle by which those affected by administrative decisions and legislation are made aware of the basic facts and figures as well as the mechanisms and processes of their government. This information must be presented in a way that is accessible, comprehensible, and enticing, thus motivating citizens to engage in the dialogue necessary to improve the efficiencies of government and mitigate corruption. It is the duty of our elected representatives and of civil servants to act in such ways as to enable this transparency.

From week to week, as I examine current and relevant issues in local politics, I will do so by applying this definition.

always remember

The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. — Patrick Henry, June 1788

Filed under: Uncategorized

Leave a comment