Roughly we can agree, as Professor Christopher Hood and Professor David Heald put it, that transparency means letting ‘those on the outside being able to look in’ (‘peering through the window’-like the glass of the German Reichstag above).
But if we dig deeper it gets complicated. Not everyone agrees on what sort of transparency they want. In fact, how you define it helps you decide whether it is good or bad.
Take Freedom of Information. On one level the law itself is quite clear. FOI is the right to ask questions of a public body, bounded by rules. The problem is not everyone sees eye to eye on what ‘real’ FOI means and how it is working. David Cameron said ‘real freedom of Information…is the money that goes in and the results that come out’ and claimed that requests about processes or decision-making were ‘furring up the arteries’ of government (see FOI man’s analysis here). In David Cameron’s mind it is more about driving economic recovery than visitors to Chequers.
Tony Blair went further and spoke about how FOI, intended for ‘the public’, was being abused by opponents
The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet (Blair 2010, 516-517).
Passing FOI was one of his two biggest regrets. Obama is fast becoming another leader who went from first term transparency advocate to second term holder of secrets. It is unlikely that his offer of NSA transparency via a website to help inform the public about the intelligence service will satisfy his critics.
There is similar confusion around Open Data. It’s not clear whether Open Data is about letting people access information, a sort of ‘FOI plus’, or about re-using it. As this paper points out, Open Data mixes all sorts of political and technical ideas, hopes and concepts that don’t fit very well together.
It’s still not clear exactly what the UK government wants to see happening with all this data. Is all this new online data designed to make the economy grow? Or is it there to get the public more involved in politics or better understand what government does? Nor is it clear what information the public want: is it about salaries or road salting? (see my discussion of this in evidence to the Public Administration Committee here). There are signs, as Jonathan Gray recently pointed out, that the UK government is seeking to shift the aims of its Transparency Agenda, changing the narrative from the ‘political’ to the ‘economic’.
The difficulty is that transparency is many things at once. It is partly economic. It is also about making politicians accountable for what they do-sometimes they are minor matters and sometimes big ones (and odd ones such as MPs’ portraits). It is also there to help NGOs and others, providing a new weapon in their armoury to campaign against everything from library closures to polluted air. Yet it can be, and often is, a practical tool to help people in their everyday lives. For all the attention given to MPs’ expenses, FOI or online data is most often used to help individuals.
So how can we define it? George Orwell defined liberty as the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear:
‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ (from his unpublished preface to Animal Farm)
We could try and rework this to fit transparency:
‘Transparency is the right to ask questions those in power don’t want asked and look for information they don’t want us to see’.
This not to say this is how it used. In fact the evidence is most people use Open Data or FOI in a relatively non-political way. But this is the key, driving idea. The problem for the future is that, without agreement on what it is, we can’t agree on what transparency policies can do and who they will benefit. It is even harder to see if the policies are a success or not when we don’t agree what success means.