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Beyond transparency?

October 1, 2012

Transparency is often put forward as a panacea which will solve all ills.   A few of those we have spoken to have implied that we could do away with all ethical regulators and rely solely on the effectiveness of the British media to identify potential and actual problems in the public sector.  But the media can’t cover all public sector activity, and isn’t it like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted? And in the pursuit of best ethical practice, is this kind of openness enough? 

I’m in no doubt that transparency is a powerful force for good and motivates people to behave well.  But do we really want people to behave ethically only because they fear their poor behaviour may be exposed to the world?  Isn’t it better for people to internalise desirable ethical values than to demonstrate them only when they fear the consequences? But how do you make that happen in reality?  What really encourages good behaviour in people? 

Our review so far has shown that transparency itself is not without problems.  Firstly there are ways of being transparent which are completely opaque! Putting large amounts of raw data in the public domain is not always helpful – data need to be provided in a usable and comparable form. 

Another potential difficulty – as the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell has argued in connection with Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests for Cabinet minutes – is that transparency could discourage the free and frank exchange of views.  This may affect how business is conducted but a recent Justice Select Committee report argues that this is not a reason to row back on FOI. What do you think? 

There’s also anecdotal evidence that the prospect of transparency encourages officials to cover their own backs rather than taking the sorts of risks which might encourage innovation. Identifying individuals can be called proper accountability – but could also be perceived as blame. Where do you think the right balance should lie?

Sheila Drew Smith

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