Furedi on "Transparency"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Back in early October, Frank Furedi wrote an eye-opening column urging us to stop "kowtowing to the cult of transparency". His remarks focus on transparency laws, but he notes that these are a manifestation of a preoccupation with what he calls "total openness" that is common in our modernist culture. He notes that these laws have had some very bad, unintended (by Tony Blair, at least) consequences:

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.

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. [minor format edits, bold added]
If the quotes around "misinterpreted" aren't scare quotes, they should be. Since communication would be impossible without concepts, any attempt to completely record every detail of even a single meeting will necessarily leave out non-essential details on top of any honest mistakes on the part of the recorder. In addition, some details, like what the participants are actually thinking, are impossible to obtain, anyway. To top all of this off, for such a record to be of a readable length, it must be delimited to its essentials, which requires some accounting for who the intended audience of the report is, and how this audience may use it. ("Anybody, for any purpose whatsoever", is an impossible editorial standard.) These facts alone make such records wide open to misinterpretation, deliberate or not, by third parties and fair game for sensationalism. The latter can easily gain traction since most people simply do not have the time to fact-check every news story that comes down the pike against the records for such meetings.

Where the minutes of a meeting might once have served a legitimate purpose -- as a memory aid for those for whom the meeting was a concern -- they now serve as an ammunition depot for anyone with an ax to grind to seemingly base an allegation of wrongdoing or bad intent on reality. Predictably, transparency laws have had a stifling effect on debate in the corridors of power:
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. [bold added]
I completely agree. Openness and transparency have their appropriate times and places. Those who treat these as intrinsically good, regardless of context, thereby confess, at best (and among other things), a fundamental failure to grasp the nature and purpose of communication.

Ayn Rand once rightly pointed out that privacy is a hallmark of civilization. Those who truly appreciate this, but won't stand up for privacy, risk opening themselves up to all kinds of mistaken suspicion and plain old bullying about anything they happen to do that might be misinterpreted -- or "misinterpreted".

-- CAV


Today: Changed "dump" to "depot". 


Jeff said...

You have given me something to think about this morning. I have recently been of the mind that all government meetings should be open (possible exception for national security). I've thought that this would lead less backroom dealings; but as you point out, it would lead to less communication; not a good thing. I'll have to rethink my position now. Thanks.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Jeff. I held a similar position to yours not so long ago, but came to this general position (although not coming from a political angle) for other reasons.