This post is a reaction to Paul Holmes’s post Transparency is a principle, not a tool for manipulating the public. His headline was much more one-sided than his text, which was well-argued. So what comes next is a critique of the Big Idea of his headline, not his considered view.
The first time I considered transparency as an issue was as an eighteen year-old reading Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son. One of them contains this 18th century nugget that I’ve never forgotten:
“Without some dissimulation no business can be carried out at all. It is simulation that is false. Dissimulation is only to hide your cards.”
When I read Paul’s piece it was that quote that came to mind. There are often good reasons not to be too transparent even in public service, I thought.
Consider gays in the US military. The Don’t ask, don’t tell (DADT) is a semi-official licence designed to encourage opaqueness in the military. Personally, I favour the right of gays to serve openly, but if one is going to fudge the issue this seems to be almost an acceptable way to do so. It may be inadequate to purists, but it was a halfway decent staging-post to somewhere more honest (and may be not all that superior).
Or consider collective responsibility in government, as did The Times’s Danny Finkelstein in last Sunday’s edition of Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4. He said that politicians who always speak their minds honestly cannot be good colleagues, because party government depends on the necessarily artificial device of assuming that there is a collegiate view.
Or consider the necessity of ordinary social deceit. The “Does my bum look big in this?” dilemma faces many people.
Or consider whether a schoolboy owes respect to a headmaster who has not yet (in the boy’s view or that of his father) “earned” it. Well, there is a necessary hypocrisy which suggests that respect is owed ex officio. (See Rod Liddle, Sunday Times, 26 October 2009.)
Or consider the politician who in public espouses infant vaccination but can’t get his spouse to allow it on his own baby? Must he be forced to come clean about the status of his own child?
These cases make me feel that transparency may or may not be valuable in this or that circumstance, but also that it is a new species of infantilism to think that transparency is always and everywhere a Good Thing as a matter of principle.
Perhaps, though, transparency is a decent principle for governance? Again, I think not. Transparency could actually be very bad for corporate and political governance. It may produce the unintended consequence of driving all serious deliberations and decisions deep underground (off-the-record management that’s not accountable to anybody, ever etc.).
When it comes to managing public finances I agree wholeheartedly that transparency is increasingly hard to argue against. But surely, there’s something wrong when transparency in the UK results in the controversial backdated caps on MPs’ expenses recommended by auditor Sir Thomas Legg? Of course in that case – and there are many – the problem isn’t the transparency but the childishness which greeted the facts it revealed.(Too many of the public were unable to cope with the idea that they were contributing to their legislators’ lifestyles.)
I doubt that forcing people to reveal the “truth” will lead to either party (the informant or the informee) becoming wiser or nicer, at least not quickly.
There’s a very real danger that people will simply lie, or be forced to dissemble with greater and greater sophistication. Or they will become mealy-mouthed, say-nothing niceness cyphers.
Indeed, more transparency can only work well if we all become more and more indifferent to the information we increasingly glean. If we do get to the position where everyone knows everything about our finances (or our sexual orientation), we will also need to be in the position of saying, “So what?” to those who make a big deal of these things (or seek to bully or blackmail us). But there is something very authoritarian about arriving there. Surely, some things are personal, or secret for good political and commercial reasons, and revealing them should not be a public requirement?
As Paul Holmes rightly says on his blog, “transparency is less and less tenable as a strategy, because information has a way of fighting free of constraints….” What does this mean for PRs? I think it means that we need to push back on the demand for transparency as a principle. We should be very specific when we use the term and seek to identify when and where it is best to advocate or reject its use.
Otherwise, I fear, transparency is doomed to become the new opaque, and that wouldn’t be honest, would it?