Limits of Transparency

We want more transparency, but do we know what we’re asking for?

07/27/2021
6.5 minutes
Adam Petrek
Limits of Transparency

Transparency has become somewhat of a catchphrase. There is an increasing demand for more transparency in almost every sphere – from politics through public departments and private organizations all the way to individuals. It often seems like transparency is this magic pill, a cure-all to end all unlawful or inappropriate behavior, to improve trust, accountability, to promote public participation and responsiveness. Australian ethicist and philosopher, Peter Singer, describes transparency as:

The perfection of democracy, the device that allows us to know what our governments are really doing, that keeps tabs on corporate abuses, and that protects our individual freedoms just as it subjects our personal lives to public scrutiny.

Transparency seems like it’s all sunshine and rainbows, and it might as well be so. Nevertheless, it is almost surprising that despite the high demand for more transparency, we only rarely look at transparency itself. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘Too much of a good thing.’ Is this applicable to transparency as well? Are there any limits, and if so, where?

Utopia or Dystopia

I do believe that transparency is vital in the public sector, especially when electing our representatives. I don’t want to vote for someone solely based on their promises since anybody can promise anything, and many do. I want to see the track record of a public figure to make an educated decision and see how they perform while in the office.

We are asking for more transparency, and that’s what we are gradually getting. Body-worn cameras, especially on police officers, are already quite common. Based on research, the police themselves are becoming more comfortable with the technology, and the public opinion is rather positive. It reduces excessive force, increases transparency, and also prevents the officer from false accusations.

It wasn’t found to increase trust, but we will get to that. Furthermore, civilians might be less likely to share information or change their behavior when on camera, especially when it might become available through public records.

Now just imagine that the general public would start wearing body-worn cameras. In Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle, many do, and it doesn’t go so well. This is extreme and fiction, but we might be heading there. One could say that China already went even further with its social credit system. It is the individual that is transparent in the eyes of the state. Almost as if Orwell’s Big Brother was watching you.

If the world went fully transparent, our lives would turn into social media profiles; private life would turn into a business.

Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt commented on criticism of the loss of privacy: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Facebook has a similar stand; being constantly ‘watched’ is supposed to prevent crime.

I cannot completely agree with this. While I am all for it in the public sector, the privacy of private individuals is where I would draw the line. There are many things that I don’t necessarily want everyone to know, but I don’t think that it means that I shouldn’t be doing them.

For example, I like to dance to Shakira or Timberlake as I cook, but I wouldn’t want the whole world to watch – I would probably stop doing it even though it brings me joy. Just imagine the Facebook or Instagram accounts of seemingly perfect lives. If the world went fully transparent, our lives would turn into social media profiles; private life would turn into a business. You don’t have to look much further than Kardashians for an example of what it might be like.

Most of us would stop behaving naturally and moderate our behavior or become paralyzed. We would consider every action for the desired outcome and self-promotion while afraid of risky activities that could result in failure or embarrassment. We would become transparent but empty. Thus our individual privacy is where I would draw a hard line. We are gradually giving up our privacy for various benefits. It might be that complete transparency is our future, but it’s certainly not something I would rush into.

Transparency and Trust

One of the misleading perceptions about transparency is that it means increased trust. This is not necessarily true. Looking back at the survey on body-worn cameras on police officers, while people generally approved, it didn’t improve their trust in the police force. The same goes for transparency in general.

People won’t trust you just because you or your institution became transparent, but it is a great first step. Trust is something that you will still have to earn, but being transparent with your actions allows the public to see whether you are somebody worth trusting. If a corrupt company became transparent, its image understandably wouldn’t improve after sharing its unlawful activities.

The Limits of Transparency

To the public sector applies a similar outcome as with individuals losing privacy. Once fully transparent, the institution has to consider every action and might be less likely to take risks in order to protect its image. Also, some potential candidates or employees might be discouraged by the high level of transparency. This seems to be an issue mainly with older generations as most young people came to terms with the fact that much of what we do is public whether we want it or not.

However, in the case of politicians and public institutions, the lack of privacy shouldn’t be considered an issue. I believe that their actions should be accessible to the public as they represent the public itself or act in its service. Therefore, while I think that we should rigorously protect what’s left of the privacy of private individuals, the public sector ought to be much more transparent, and that’s where Eric Schmidt’s quote should apply.

We Have to Communicate

What are the consequences of transparency, and how to best apply it? We ought to talk about where it belongs and to what extent. We have to talk about what the transparency we are asking for is.

Transparency in the public sector is a significant first step towards building trust. It reduces unlawful activities, abuse of power and creates accountability. Furthermore, it opens public institutions to residents and promotes their engagement and responsiveness.

On the other hand, individual privacy is where we should draw a clear line to avoid following in China’s footsteps and protect our individual rights. Otherwise, George Orwell warned us for nothing.

I firmly believe in the transparency of the public sector and the protection of individual privacy. Now, I am just a writer, and I am sure that many of you have your own opinions on this topic. I would strongly encourage you to reach out to me at petrek@onesimplicity.com with your opinions on transparency and continue the discussion.

Here at Simplicity, we aim to bring you the best possible experience with your city through seamless communication. We promote and nurture the transparency of public institutions while protecting the privacy of urban residents.