The complicated value of transparency
Last week I wrote about a mental loop I have been stuck in, trying to decide what to design and who to design for within the criminal justice space generally, and the court system more specifically. In thinking about my ultimate goal, the objective of my interventions in the criminal justice space, I went back to the concept of transparency. I believe in striving for organizational and interpersonal transparency as much as possible, because I believe it leads to greater trust, understanding, empathy, and creativity. However, I remember distinctly recognizing the benefit of secrecy when I served as a grand juror—all proceedings are kept secret so as to protect the reputation and safety of the accused and the witnesses. So what do I mean when I say that transparency is my goal?
'Transparency' is defined in a number of ways, depending on the article, audience, and application in question. I have found discussions of the value of transparency in business, particularly in HR literature, as well as in government, classrooms, and even in personal life. My own understanding is clarified by the ways in which I think other authors mischaracterize the nature and goal of transparency.
Here is what I don't believe about transparency:
Transparency makes people have to worrry about things they can't control. Transparency is part of building trust in an organization, creating a space where people feel psychologically safe and are able to contribute to the best of their abilities. The concern that the low man on the totem pole should not have to deal with the chaos of an organization misses the point: Transparency doesn't mean that everything suddenly becomes everyone's job, just that the information is accessible to everyone.
Transparency demands compulsive sharing. I don't think transparency means saying everything the moment you think it. Writing for the Guardian on "The problem with transparent government," Aditya Chakrabortty uses What Women Want, the Mel Gibson romantic comedy to argue against transparency in government. In this movie the Gibson character is suddenly able to hear every woman's every thought; Chakrabortty writes:
The results are horrific. Everywhere he goes, Mel/Nick is assailed by the private musings of passing females... In the middle of a park in Chicago, he discovers the debilitating effects of too much transparency.
I don't think that's the transparency that governments are seeking. It is not about making every decision or conversation a matter of public record, but about allowing the public access and insight into the factors contributing to policy that will impact them.
Transparency means there can't be any secrets. The opposite of transparent is opaque, not private or secret. There are situations in which information should not be shared widely. But you can be transparent about the fact that the information needs to remain private. The grand jury is a good example: The proceedings of grand jury hearings are not public record because the grand jury is responsible for validating the district attorney's claim that an individual should be charged and tried for a certain offense. We all know that accusations can greatly damage reputations, even if they turn out to be unwarranted. (Just think back to the last election, and the power of 'fake news' and 'alternate facts' to influence public opinion.) In this case, and many others, transparency of procedure is what matters, not transparency in content.
Transparency means there can't be authority, structure, or hierarchy. In the American system, the government is only supposed to have the power that the people grant it. It doesn't always feel like it, but those elected and appointed officials are there to serve you, and not the other way around. While voting reminds citizens of that dynamic, in the realm of justice citizens often feel at the mercy of the government. The sense that government is 'in control' conflates power and execution. Because the government is in charge of implementing programs and services, they seem to be 'in charge.' Transparency isn't about removing all power structure, it's about being clear about who holds what kind of power.
Here is what I do believe about transparency:
Transparency both provides and demands context. The aforementioned article by Chakrabortty goes on to talk about the danger of considering a release of information an end in itself. He cites Lawrence Lessig's article "Against Transparency" to make the point that an overzealous openness can distract and detract from the agenda, and argues that, in the case of David Cameron's "attempt at openness," the information made available is partial because it is devoid of context and therefore unusable by the majority of the population. I would argue that this author has a problem with the way practices of transparency are being implemented, not with the concept itself.
Transparency doesn't mean dumbing down. In government, one could argue that transparency means that every individual citizen would understand every bit of what government does. But this is clearly impractical. One reason we specialize in our careers is to develop deeper knowledge of certain areas and allow others to take care of the things we don't understand. Certainly in business, I don't feel disadvantaged by not knowing the intricacies of the job of the accountant in my office. What I would feel disadvantaged by is not being permitted to know what an accountant was or who was doing that job in my business. Transparency to me is the ability to see where information can be accessed, available if desired, not bringing all types of information down to the lowest common denominator.
Transparency is crucial to justice. Transparency is one of the hallmarks of environments with high psychological safety as well as procedural justice. That's because, at its most basic, transparency is about allowing participants in a given situation to understand what's going on. That 'simple' affordance shows respect, builds trust, and signals neutrality. This is one reason I object viscerally to plea bargains, even though I understand that within the current system they are often beneficial to both state and defendant. Plea bargains fly in the face of our right to a trial and the idea that we will be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They also run counter to the notion that the justice system is executing the will of the people at large. Plea bargains are an enormous show of prosecutorial power, which benefits neither the victims nor perpetrators of crimes.
Transparency is an approach, not an outcome. I confess that I am not willing to be dissuaded of the value of transparency in almost every context. But my call for transparency is as an overarching modus operandi, not for the destruction of expertise or specialization. It is an ideology: Overall, sharing information, best practices, and solutions and collaborating across businesses, industries, and sectors, will improve our lives. This necessitates an attitude of abundance: There are more than enough good ideas to go around. If we give others information or access, that doesn't deplete our own. I see the value of transparency at multiple scales, from interpersonal interactions to international negotiations.
Sometimes I worry that that point of view, grounded in the assumption that most people want the best for their neighbor, their country, and the world, is evidence of my naïveté. That most people do not act out of malice. And while that may be naïve, until I have been proven wrong enough times, I will continue to hold on to this optimistic view of the world, because that's the only thing that makes it possible to believe that progress is possible.
Image credit: https://newrepublic.com/article/70097/against-transparency