Research on Open Data and Transparency

What Is Transparency?

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 Position Paper for Visible Mediations of Transparency: Changing Norms & Practices

Through what media, cultural, activist and commercial forms do people learn about transparency issues? What are the dominant messages on transparency?

There are a number of ways through which the public learn about transparency issues. First, transparency often appears in the media and political discourse as a solution to crises. Scandals, exposes or shocks, from political corruption to financial crashes, either create a demand for greater openness or the lack of it is defined as a cause (Roberts 2012). Increased openness is also frequently offered by governments or organisations as a symbol of their ‘difference’ from predecessors/competitors or their commitment to certain values and ways of working. Second, as Fenster (2015) points out, transparency has also ‘captured the popular imagination’ through narratives about whistleblowing or ‘heroic leaks’ such as the MPs’ Expenses or Snowden. Third, consequently, transparency over the last decade has entrenched itself within political discourse as a kind of universal good that is both an instrumental means to a number of positive outcomes (such as improved trust or accountability) and an end in itself (Heald 2006: Meijer 2013). It is, moreover, an idea that is universally supported across the political spectrum (Birchall 2014). The existence of mechanisms such as Freedom of Information laws provide daily reminders in the media of the role and value of openness.

Underneath this universal veneer, transparency can be many things. Indeed, it is in some senses an ‘empty signifier’ that can be ‘filled’ by very different interpretations or emphasis (Stubbs and Snell 2014). Below are just three examples:

  • Transparency as Political Empowerment: it is a highly politicised instrument of empowerment, embodying different democratic norms and values (Fenster 2012)
  • Transparency as Policy Solution: it can be a ‘dramatically satisfying answer to every crisis and question about the state’ (Fenster 2015).
  • Transparency as Economic Improvement: it is a means of increasing efficiency and even wealth, connected to a ‘consumer-citizen’ idea of delivery and performance measurement.

Its dominant message is fundamentally contested. There is a constant, highly politicised struggle to define which of these (or many other) meanings transparency has and what it can and should do (Yu and Harlan 2012: Fenster 2015). For governments it is often imbued with very particular, often neo-liberal, conceptions of state-society relations. More radical conceptions see it as a weapon against exactly these ideas (Birchall 2014). The question of what sort of transparency is created, of who and by who exposes the complex politics underneath (Berliner 2014). Julian Assange and David Cameron are both vocal supporters of transparency but it is unlikely they agree on what it means and who it should effect. On a symbolic level, transparency can be a radical weapon of empowerment, a tool of modernisation and a means of demonstrating an organisation is more ethical, more honest or more trustworthy.

There is rarely a clear distinction on what transparency is produced by e.g. is it through an FOI, a leak or whistleblowing? Transparency can be seen as a continuum or spectrum with government press releases at one end and Snowden at the other. It is most often government that delineates what it sees as the legal ‘limits’ around openness on the borders, for example, of FOI laws or secrecy legislation. It frames the narrative over where transparency begins and ends.

Yet the exact limitations are constantly moving. Disclosures through leaks, semi-authorised disclosures and ‘plants’, innovations such as Open Data, and ‘radical’ actions like Wikileaks can all kick start transparency and gradually shift where the border lies between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ or ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ (Posen 2013). Meaning is greatly complicated by the closing off of certain issues, not least the transparency of citizens through government surveillance, a rarely mentioned aspect of the wider transparency debate that is frequently disconnected or separated (Birchall 2014).

Do people care about liberal transparency (holding power-holders to account)? Do people care about ubiquitous transparency (where their own private lives are open for inspection)?

What evidence can be gleaned of how the public view transparency points to rather mixed and nuanced understanding. There is a broad public awareness of some formal means of transparency e.g. Freedom of Information laws and a general (if vague) support for them. In terms of leaks and ‘radical transparency’ such as Snowden and WikiLeaks public opinion is unclear-in certain contexts, while there exists a powerful supportive ‘folklore’ about whistleblowing , expectations and concerns over, for example, national security can divide opinion as to the ethics and effects (Roberts 2012a: Fenster 2012). Some fascinating experiments indicate that the public support and are reassured by the presence of transparency mechanisms but have little desire to use them, instead preferring to rely on other citizens to operate them and unleash the benefits (see De Fine Licht 2012 and De Licht et al 2014)

Similarly with privacy, there is an awareness of rights and a sense that it is an important issue-surveys register a continual hum of concern over confidential information, data protection and privacy. But this does not appear to generate a general concern or ‘push’ for particular things to happen. Instead there appears to be reactions to sudden ‘punctuated’ privacy ‘scandals’ e.g. as seen in the UK over and the security of personal health information. In some ways, public opinion probably reflects the nuance of an issue that does not really have an obvious or permanent solution, the basis of which are continually challenged and outstripped by technology.

Is there a disconnect between transparency representations and public opinion, and if so, how it should be addressed? Do we have a healthy public debate on transparency issues? What would improve its quality?

There are numerous disconnects over public opinion and transparency

  • Context is key: Although transparency is seen as a ‘good thing’, the battle over what it means and its limits undoubtedly raise a series of competing and contradictory issues. Transparency overlaps with the ethics of leaks, privacy and national security. The view held by the public of any kind of transparency at any one time is highly context dependent. A leaker of classified information like Snowden may be viewed very differently than the anonymous leaker of MPs’ expenses.
  • Flawed assumptions: The underlying idea of transparency, that information empowers citizens as rational calculators, is misplaced, though politicians continue to press it. All receivers of information have biases, heuristics and assumptions that shape ideas and views and may interrupt the flow or change the meaning of disclosed information. All transparency systems and instruments are shaped by the environment in which they are created and their political context (Meijer 2013).
  • Competing visions and meanings: The debate over transparency is ongoing but may further complicate discussion rather than resolve it as different sides pull against each other. Governments seek a de-politicised (or re-directed) transparency focused on efficiency or improving services while activists seek greater openness of different parts of the state (and increasingly the private sector). The different language and aims may push discussion in divergent directions.

Select Bibliography

Berliner, Daniel. (2014). ‘The Political Origins of Transparency’. The Journal of Politics, 76(2): 479-491

Birchall, C. (2014). Radical Transparency?. Cultural Studies↔ Critical Methodologies, 14(1), 77-88.

De Fine Licht, J., Naurin, D., Esaiasson, P., & Gilljam, M. (2014). When does transparency generate legitimacy? Experimenting on a context‐bound relationship. Governance, 27(1), 111-134.

Fenster, M. (2015). ‘Transparency in Search of a Theory’. European Journal of Social Theory, 18(2), 150-167.

Heald, D. (2006). ‘Transparency as an Instrumental Value’.

Meijer, A. (2013). ‘Understanding the complex dynamics of transparency’. Public Administration Review, 73(3), 429-439

Stubbs, Rhys and Snell, Rick, (2014) ‘Pluralism in FOI Law Reform: Comparative Analysis of China, Mexico and India’. The University of Tasmania Law Review Vol. 33, No.1, 2014, 141-164.

Yu, Harlan and Robinson, David G., (2012) ‘The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ (February 28, 2012). 59 UCLA L. Rev. Disc. 178

Roberts, Alasdair S., (2012) ‘Transparency in Troubled Times’. Tenth World Conference of the International Ombudsman Institute, November 2012; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper 12-35.





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