During a speech on Open Public Sector Services in 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that “we are creating a new era of transparency“. But are such governmental transparency agendas really the positive development for society they set out to be? In this series of insight pieces, Ave Design founder Ellie Thompson explores the meanings, implications, and the role of digital technology in this new era of transparency in government.

References to transparency by politicians and business leaders proliferate today’s on and offline media. Yet, in the context of brands, being able to succinctly define transparency, and why private, public and third sector organisations and their employees want to be seen as transparent, is a surprisingly difficult task.

We all think we know the definition of transparent– in its plainest sense, anyway. It means that an object can be seen, or be seen through. However, in the context of brands, it’s more complicated. Transparency for organisations is about strategically releasing information into the public domain with the aim of creating competitive advantage. It involves metrics and measurement, and can forge a way for brands to build stakeholder relationships.

There are various drivers for the increasing awareness of the concept of transparency and its relevance: increasing globalisation, the dissolution of company boundaries, compliance with legal standards, rapid technological advancements with increase of social media, changing relationships between consumers and brands, increasing focus on morality and accountability, and changes in governance due to neoliberalism. In addition, instances of malpractice, corruption and exploitation within private, public and third sector organisations in recent decades has led to increasing demands for transparency by stakeholders. Scandals such as the MPs expenses, the withholding of information by banks that led to the global financial crisis in 2007 and misspending of money within the third sector (at Wyclef Jean’s Haiti charity ‘Yele Haiti’, or Kids Company) create a sense of distrust that is shared by consumers and citizens alike.   

Because of this, brands are actively adopting transparency strategies in order to demonstrate a will to reduce corruption and malpractice, build a relationship of trust between organisations and the public, and mobilise citizens to re-appropriate information to create social and economic value. Consumer decision-making processes have also evolved from an economic focus to being heavily influenced by social and environmental factors as the market logic extends into social and public spheres. As a result we see brands changing their behaviour by attempting to humanise, or become ‘Citizen Brands’, according to Michael Wilmott. This is increasingly demonstrated in engagement with corporate social responsibility schemes whereby new levels of importance is ascribed to organisations’ ‘Triple Bottom Line’, a theory put forward by John Elkington. The internalisation of social and environmental factors into brand values actively demonstrates to consumers and the public that the brand cares about the environment and society at large, so creating a competitive advantage and an increase in their brand value. This is important as the ‘ethical consumer’ grips tighter to the reins of business and a new generation of ‘citizen journalists’ hold brands to account.   

In this series, I will focus on the causes and effects of transparency within government. As political parties and politicians alike are increasingly considering themselves brands I will explore whether their transparency agendas are a positive development for society, drawing on examples of transparency in government around the world to assess who is benefitting from its use as a strategic instrument to “reform, improve and build trust in democratic governance structures” as described by the Open Government Partnership.

What is brand transparency?

The definition of transparency has multiple applications and so its meaning is difficult to explain as a one-size-fits-all definition. Marketing literature considers it a new public relations tool, a ‘buzzword’, and a new way to manipulate and control consumers. In academia, however, explanations are more in-depth.

In Economies Through Transparency, Emiliano Grossman says that transparency falls into two areas: literal and abstract. Literal transparency is focused on building strong ties by means of face-to-face interaction where the individual takes president. Abstract transparency is about ‘abstracting’ the public into scenarios where the individual is not the focus; it’s an aesthetic engagement driven form. An example is school league tables. David Heald’s Varieties of Transparency also talks of transparency taking two forms: event and process transparency; whereby the former is inputs, outputs or outcomes, and the latter is procedure or operations. This notion correlates to Grossman’s theory of transparency being used as a device or as a principle. In Tactical Transparency: How leaders can leverage social media to maximise value and build their brand, Shel Holtz and John C. Havens also segment transparency into two areas: Financial, in terms of earnings, reports, budgets; and Governance, applying to rules, processes and behaviours.   

Heald’s work goes into further detail and describes transparency as operating in four directions: inward, outward, upward or downward – the most common being inward whereby transparency takes on a more democratic form, focusing on allowing those outside the organisation to see inside, which represents a freedom of information. Transparency can also be discussed in terms of accountability and authenticity. Setting a distinction between these terms is important: transparency is about sharing information; authenticity is about the ability to trust the information due to it being truth. Accountability is considered similar to transparency but its concern is more than metrics, measurement and the strategic release of information. Accountability focuses on being held to account by multiple sources according to Daniel Neyland. It is as transparency downward that Heald states transparency comes under the umbrella of ‘accountability’ as it is this instance where the “ruled can observe the conduct, behaviour and results of their rulers”. Neyland also describes transparency as a feature of demonstrative accountability, whereby there is autonomy to the process rather than a legal obligation.   

I agree with the concept of having two distinct aspects of transparency, as discussed by the academics above; however in relation to government I feel that transparency in fact has three areas: 

  • data transparency: records and information held by central government departments, public sector bodies and local authorities 
  • decision-making transparency: details of new policies and legislation   
  • operational transparency: budget documents, accounts, fiscal policies, code-of-conduct, and other operational procedures   

 

What role does transparency play in government?

Before we discuss this question, it’s important to establish what fuelled its presence in the first place. Neo-liberal government changes in the 1970s led to what has been termed ‘politicized marketing’, whereby businesses could create value for their brand through engaging in Corporate Social Responsibility, according to a 2008 essay by Ronen Shamir, The age of responsibilization: on market embedded morality. As a result of a new dialogue on social and environmental issues in the media and academic writing over the past four decades, we have seen a growing importance attached to ethics and morality in the lives of the civil society. Governments are now expected to provide an ‘access-all-areas’ pass to their public data, decision and policy making processes and operations and as they try to get “closer to [their] citizens” according to Peterson in Economies Through Transparency. There is also an emerging trend of political parties and politicians (most famously New Labour and Tony Blair), rebranding and adopting brand strategies in order to engage in more emotional relationships with the public, building mutual trust between all actors involved: the political parties, politicians, the government employees and the civil society. 

In the mid-90s Labour rebranded to unveil ‘New Labour’ – a political party with a new identity, an aspirational manifesto and unified tone of voice. They also had a new weapon in their brand strategy; transparency. But transparency isn’t a new concept in government; Sweden were the first country to adopt an access-to-information stance in government in 1766. In Transparency: The Key To Better Governance Christopher Hood highlights instances where candour and openness have held an important role in government as far back as the conception of legal doctrines in ancient China. In the 1960’s Karl Popper wrote extensively about mechanisms of transparency as a way to create ‘open society’. In contemporary academic literature government transparency is often interpreted as a way of creating openness, on the precondition that those interacting with the disclosed information have the ability to understand and interpret it. So, we can see that discourse on transparency as a concept in government has been in circulation for more than the past few decades. But its adoption now is rapidly increasing on a global level. 

Globalisation is changing governments around the world; new agreements, laws and frameworks are being created to make sure that standards in the global supply chain and the way governments are running are consistent. In September 2011 the UK was one of eight founding governments in the Open Government Partnership initiative, established as a “global effort to make governments better” by “promot[ing] transparency, empower[ing] citizens, fight[ing] corruption, and harness[ing] new technologies to strengthen governance”. Prior to this in May 2010 the UK had already implemented its own ‘transparency agenda’ with the manifesto that “openness and transparency can save money, strengthen people’s trust in government and encourage greater public participation in decision-making” (data.gov.uk). These are both examples of inwards transparency as part of governments demonstrating their accountability. But transparency isn’t just self-initiated; increasingly, citizens are demanding it because of a growing distrust and cynicism arising from incidents of incompetence, malpractice and corruption. Some examples are:

  • 2007: HM Revenue and Customs lost two CDs containing child benefit data
  • 2008: Icelandic bank Landsbanki crashed and it transpired that UK Councils had been resting their money in accounts
  • 2009: it was revealed that MP’s had been making false expense claims at the cost of the British public

What we’re seeing is the retraction of boundaries that once prevented citizens from finding out information about government, with the aim that it will build trust and prove they have nothing to hide. The government needs to be permeable to facilitate the cooperation it needs from the civil society and it expects to be met halfway by an active, capable and motivated public who are willing to engage in a process of co-creation of governance and policy. The British government’s commitment to decision-making transparency can be seen on their website whereby the civilians can access information relating to new policies, and actively it encourages feedback. In the US in 2009, President Obama introduced the Open Government Initiative with the aim of ensuring “public trust”. He said: “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government”.  Across Europe, and globally, governments are joining forces in initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which is in its fourth year of operation.

We can already see how the OGP is making positive societal and political change in countries where governments have historically had impenetrable walls of secrecy such as Kenya.  In 2010 Bitange Ndemo, secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communication, won the backing of President Kibabki to create the Kenya Open Data Initiative through which the country released over 4,000 documents and opened up two data portals. This instance of data transparency received press attention during 2011 in The Guardian and The New York Times celebrating this pioneering innovation for connecting Kenya’s government to their citizens. However, the government was cirticised when the cost of creating and maintaining the portal, as well as the cost of preparing and releasing the transparent information was reported. The financial investment needed to release data, as well as the debate over how transparent the data creating process is often noted as a criticism of transparency, especially in a time of recession where the public purse strings are tightening. But while there is debate surrounding the cost associated in compiling and releasing data, transparency is a long-term strategy, which aims to reduce costs through centralising information, making government process more efficient, and strengthening the reputation of the government as a way to encourage external economic investment. 

What role is technology playing in transparency?

The increase in transparency awareness can be put down, in part, to the technology boom. Within a governmental context, transparency centres in three areas: social media, e-government websites and open-source. The civil society have been mobilised by new developments in social media which is facilitating engagement with government, political parties and politicians, who are (as part of their brand strategies) actively harnessing these platforms as a means of creating two way dialogue with the public. The result is a new wave of ‘citizen journalists’ who are able to publically hold the behaviour of the government, and those employed by the government, to account. I see this as a new paradigm in governance whereby technology is actually creating a government-civil society partnership that is co-creating decisions, such as policies, based on shared values.   

Data transparency, in partnership with Web 2.0 and ‘open-source’ technology, is empowering citizens to conceive new ideas, create new products and launch new services by way of converting data into knowledge that can be appropriated and delivered in new forms. This innovation we see from ‘knowledge workers’ is creating value, in both an economic and societal sense, for the public and government alike, according to Ardidsson in The ethical economy: towards a post capitalist theory of value. In Kenya, for example, had Ndemo not fought for so long for the Open Data Initiative, important social developments such as the Find My School app, which appropriates data from opendata.go.ke and repackages it into a form where the public can search for schools in their area, would not have been created. This initiative provided the Kenyan people with an easy and comprehensive tool for gaining insight, and saved the government time and money in enquiries. While Arvidsson  sets out an ethical debate on the exploitation of the knowledge worker as they don’t gain financially, in the same book Negri believes that the appropriation of data as a form of ‘free labour’ means social production transcends traditional capitalist forms of value. 

This is a viewpoint that I challenge. Technology has cultivated new forms of production, which should be freely appropriated, and in the instance of government we are not talking about commodities being exchanged in a capitalist framework where the sole beneficiary is an already rich and powerful brand. What we see are organisations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation (who describes itself as an organisation that are facilitating the co-creation of governance through the civil societies engagement with transparent data, encouraging the sharing of data via a networked community and encouraging innovation, facilitating growing numbers of willing knowledge workers utilising open-source and open-data to create exciting innovations that not just create value but spearhead progression. While the knowledge workers involved in this form of social production are creating new resources that are exchanged outside of a financial framework, in a government setting there are multiple beneficiaries who gain from this from these resources. 

It isn’t just data transparency that is producing value; we also see that decision-making transparency, presented via websites such as gov.uk, foia.gov and data.gov, allow the public to co-produce values and governance. I would consider these websites to be public information tools, whereby they act as (by Heald’s definition) inwards transparency mechanisms to improve the public’s ability to make decisions – after all the public cannot make educated decisions if policy choices are unknown. Here we see the civil society acting as knowledge workers, whereby they are actively participating in the re-appropriation of information and turning it into new forms; votes that decide policies, for example. Again this creates new forms of value, both social and economic, because actors are engaging in a dialogue which allows the government insight into what the public want, gains legitimacy of decision-making process by the co-creation of governance, and saving money by making the entire process more efficient and trusted. However, this does rely on the clarity and interoperability of the content. To return to Heald once more, if the information provided isn’t accessible we see ‘nominal transparency’, whereby strictly speaking transparency is achieved, but it is of no value as it cannot be understood. Due to the increasing power now resting in the hands of the public, social media and e-government also runs the risk of asynchronous transparency whereby an imbalanced government-public relationship could lead to the government being held to account by fake or erroneous claims, or by groups of activists swaying policy during consultation processes.   

Is transparency creating a better society?

Popper’s seminal book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1962) put the notion of government ‘openness’ into the mainstream. Popper believed that a ‘no secrets’ stance, whereby all actors are trusted with all knowledge, would result in a tolerant and flexible government that empowers its citizens and creates a better society. But we know that the government cannot achieve a ‘no secrets’ stance as it has privacy laws to abide by, intellectual property to protect and national security to maintain. While Popper’s ‘open’ ideology proclaims a new paradigm in non-authoritarian society it has been criticised. Nathaniel Tkacz believes we’re on the crest of a second wave of ‘the open’, whereby openness is still apparent in contemporary society (in the form of freedom, individualism and competition) but when married up with the governance it can create ‘closure’. In From open source to open government : a critique of open politics, Tkacz highlights this as a “critical flaw in how openness functions in relation to politics”. To contextualise this, in 2006 another political scandal made headlines when journalists investigated the operations of the Labour party and it became clear that individuals that had made significant donations to the party were subsequently receiving peerage. What caused outrage was that due to new rules and regulations instilled by Labour a deliberate loophole had been created facilitating opacity of specific (unfavourable) detail despite the party’s commitment to transparency. This instance of operational transparency demonstrates how apparent transparency can actually also be masking information.   

In context of data transparency, I have concerns about civilian data being made public. What stops the government or private organisations from repurposing the data to track, monitor and survey the public? Because of there being no policing the way in which this data is used, one risk I foresee would be in (possibly unrelated) data-sets being combined creating misleading information which could be damaging for society. So while we see technology playing a positive role in empowering the civil society there are risks that need to be addressed. Amitai Etzioni criticises transparency as being assigned too much significance in government and believes that it is not a guarantee of “good governance” due to the potential for the misappropriation of information. In The Republic, Plato wrote of a totalitarian state that embraced censorship and the withholding of operational processes from citizens. Popper was critical of this mindset, believing that if the state were not open the citizens would not trust it. Could there be some benefit in withholding some information? Could Etzioni have a valid point? For example, if we look at government’s operation transparency – is there not a substantial risk in allowing the public to see the areas that are not working well, or running properly (a common symptom in government)? I believe too much transparency within a governmental setting could actually increase distrust due to perhaps appearing too human, fallible. While discussion alludes to the government’s new best-friend ‘transparency’ having benefits for society as it proliferates we also see friction between the demands of internal and external stakeholders for unrestricted access to information and the demands for consistency in communicating government messages. This can lead to confusion in the official line, which could be seen as obfuscation. But it’s important to remember that transparency by its very nature is a tool for revealing and hiding information. 

So are the three area of transparency present in government improving trust levels, reducing corruption and making decision-making more democratic? We know that government needs transparency in order to build trust, generate dialogue and harbour collaboration. Russia’s commitment to the OGP has seen corruption and malpractice becoming harder to get away with through new initiatives driven by transparency. But in terms of trust, the Eldman Trust Barometer shows that in 2010 trust in UK government dropped by 26% to only 38% (currently 37% in 2016) and globally the populace of the majority of countries said they actively distrust government. I propose a reason for this; that governments are now so worried about being held to account that they release too much information for dissemination whereby the responsibility for its comprehension falls at the feet of unqualified interpreters. I also believe there are ethical implications of government relying on the public to decipher, rationalise and contextualise this information because it implies a level of responsibility for the results; be that legislation and policies that get passed or apps and websites that misuse public data. For example in instances of controversy or scandal the government can now declare the public their co-conspirator. I also have concerns about the reliance on digital technology to inform the public, as not all generations of the public have access to the Internet or are computer literate and are therefore excluded.   

Conclusion

At the start of this piece I discussed how political parties and politicians, as well as government, have begun to consider themselves as brands and adopt strategies such as transparency to promote trust and the perception of authenticity. I believe this is a result of a redefinition of the role that brands hold in the lives of the public and consumers, which has moved away from branding as the durational embodiment of an organisation’s values and a way of solely organising the internal and external perceptions of an organisation to a new paradigm where brands are now presenting themselves with human characteristics so that they’re perceived as trusted ‘friends’ and counterparts. In the context of government the conception of this ‘humanised’ relationship with the public is controversial as part of the government’s inherent role is to govern over its people, to take control, to lead.    

Transparency is a term that is presenting itself more frequently in discourse on government; however what we don’t see is a clear set of common evaluative measures and metrics by which its use within local, national and global government is being assessed. Therefore, while eradicating corruption, preventing malpractice, empowering the civil society and strengthening governance are the motivations for government using transparency, there seems to be no universal way we can compare or measure if it’s working. At the outset of this essay I proposed governmental transparency operating in three directions: data, decision-making and operations. From auditing academic and marketing literature, as well as the media, it’s clear the release of these forms of information is having some significant benefits to society. We see the civil society motivated to coproduce values and websites such as gov.uk facilitating public involvement in deciding new policies and legislation. We see inspired ‘knowledge workers’ embracing government datasets and open-source technology to create innovative new products and services such as the Kenyan Find My School app. We see governments with bad reputations, such as the Russian example cited earlier, using operational transparency as a way to discourage acts of corruption and malpractice. The benefits don’t just fall at the feet of the public, for government the perception of having nothing to hide, being strong, trustworthy, honest, and importantly having the backing of your citizens, gives a competitive advantage. This manifests itself in increased international investment, which can be of huge significance, especially to countries with emerging economies. We also see that active participation by the civil society gives increased backing to policy and government operations. However, according to the International Budget Partnership, 77 of 100 countries in 2012 globally failed to meet the basic transparency requirements of their governments between 2006 and 2012.

What we’re seeing is a catch-22 situation whereby on the one hand transparency is benefiting society by allowing the public to access as much data as they want and appropriate it freely, but on the other hand we see individuals and organisations abusing it and governments that won’t comply. This ability for openness to be used as a way to manipulate the public by claiming the government is transparent without it being so, or creating ‘nominal transparency’ as Heald would say, needs further attention as the ability for a government to state they’re transparent but only actually be releasing minimal information is an abuse of the very trust that they’re trying to achieve. It’s also clear that transparency can nurture opacity, which in turn is allowing corruption and malpractice to find new ways of being masked. However, despite these risks and negative attributes there is no escaping that with the growing public awareness of transparency any government actively resisting it would seem suspicious. As we’ve seen there are risks with the government employing transparency, but the argument of ‘ignorance is bliss’ in relation to the state, as Plato would have advocated, I disregard. Transparency in government is a positive step forward in instilling trust, strengthening national and global democracy, boosting the economy and creating a better society.     

Further Research

Transparency is a long-term strategic move, so when analysing whether governmental transparency is creating tangible positive change we must bear in mind that the majority of these initiatives are in their infancy, so their long-term results are yet to be seen. Critique of governmental transparency needs further analysis over the coming years in order to fully understand what its effects will be for the public, businesses and the economy in the long-term. I therefore propose that a global government trust measurement framework would be advantageous to assess governments globally along the same metrics.

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