From the Good Ideas File: Joining the Journey to True Transparency

Transparency has become a huge issue in parts of my circles lately, especially among people who are working with open data and civic technology, as well as my colleagues who are trying to build better public engagement.  It seems like everyone who has any awareness of how the world is changing understands on at least some intellectual level the need for more transparent governments and organizations… but that doesn’t mean we always want to do it.  Or that we even fully understand what our options are.

That’s why I was delighted to encounter this post from Andy White, a multi-faceted startup wizard involved with the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, who has out-and-out stated that he is on a “Journey in Radical Transparency.”  In this post, Andy works out what I think is the first typology of transparency that I have seen.  His categories:

  • Inadvertent Transparency
  • Voluntary Transparency
  • Exclusionary Transparency
  • True Transparency.

The first two probably translate pretty readily for goverment and nonprofit and social enterprise types.  Inadvertent Transparency is when something goes badly and you have to ‘fess up and make something transparent that wasn’t before.  Andy outlines this conundrum well:

…the information is forced out into the open. The source must then to react to whatever situation is created. Many times this makes them go on the defense, and it’s not pretty.

This begs the question, why was the information held so closely in the first place? Of course there’s always a reason but, are those still valid?

What if the information was readily available?

The second type, Voluntary Tranparency, is what my colleagues in open source are looking for — but Andy also identifies how such seemingly proactive transparency can also function as a spin job.  His last point should especially hit home for city managers and economic development types, who face huge pressures to always put on the happy face:

This is when information is pro-actively shared. There are significant benefits to this. First, it’s a great motivator for accountability. Second, it builds trust. Third, there are no concerns about containing information. This can be done in a variety of different ways for a variety of reasons.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing it done at times as a marketing stunt. Only releasing good news after it happens is not transparency.

As I wrote about recently for a Strengthening Brand America e-book, marketing stunts increasingly don’t work, or they backfire.

Andy’s last two categories are the ones that I think represent particularly important contributions to this topic.  The first, Exclusionary Transparency, can go a long way toward addressing the fears that talk of “transparency” often raises for city administrators and councilors:

This may seem like an oxymoron but, it’s very important to frame the conversation.

There’s an implied value around transparency that all the pertinent information is being shared.  This also creates an implied context around the data. If this is not the case it’s important to define the areas that are not being revealed.

Every organization has exclusionary policies. These range from salaries to hiring and firing, research and development to product launches. This helps build the full context around the topic by defining what you don’t know.

This is crucial on both the convincing-the-organization side and on the communicating-to-the-outside side. For the organization, this end-runs one of the common complaints against transparency: “but we have some things that can’t be public!”  Fine, exclude those from the transparency stance.

For the public side, stating clearly that certain information has to be protected and why becomes crucial to the trust-building that transparency is ultimately designed to do.  As I wrote about in my magnum opus about the Downtown Project after a bout of bad press, one of the challenges that this organization hit was that, while they wanted to be as transparent as humanly possible about what was really going on, they hit the usual legal and HR restrictions when it came to talking about actual employees.  Which meant a somewhat abrupt switch from human language to HR-talk, and I would suspect that the suddenness and unexplained-ness of that switch might have worked against their transparent intentions.  Better, probably, to state in plain English where the boundaries of transparency lie.

The final dimension of transparency that Andy describes is what he calls True Transparency, but could also be termed Consistent or Ongoing or Ingrained Transparency.   He makes a crucial and too often overlooked point here:

There’s one additional element required to have true transparency. In addition to voluntary and exclusionary there must also be a consistent flow of data. If it’s not on a consistent basis then it can’t be true transparency. The consistent flow is what reinforces the trust. It’s imperative that the information is being shared no matter what story it tells. Many times we see inconsistent timing of the information being shared. This calls into question the purpose of the data and erodes trust.


Since Andy has written all of this so well, I’ll let him also have the last word — it’s as true for those of you who work to make communities better as it is for the start-up businesses he counsels:

Ultimately everything we do is transparent to some degree. We leave behind a trail of information that can be pieced together to form a story. The main question is how involved do you want to be in the creation of that story?

When you answer that last question, keep in mind: if you don’t create your own story, someone else will create it for you.  And, especially when it comes to communities, the story that the main stream media, or your local axe-grinders, or other sources may create from your trail of information probably won’t be the whole story.  So you might as well be transparent.

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