05 Oct 2018

There is a modern view that transparency is a highly desirable in decision-making processes in government and business. Others, however, warn that transparency should not be pursued as an end in itself and that it needs to be calibrated carefully to achieve the desired results.

Indeed, some say “too much” transparency, like too much of anything, is not necessarily a good thing.

Advocates of the benefits of transparency for good governance and policy making, such as OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria, say that openness can help build “a stronger, cleaner, fairer world”.

“Openness and transparency are key ingredients to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies,” contends Mr Gurria.

But is transparency necessarily a “good thing” for governance in all cases? Or can too much scrutiny end up bogging down good governance and leading to policy paralysis?

“Policy transparency is generally beneficial as it enables timely feedback from the public, where there are both street wisdom and intellectual superiority that could further improve the decision-making process,” says Assistant Professor Huanhuan Zheng, who joined the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore in 2017.

“Transparency also motivates policy makers to do due diligence so as to maintain reputation.”

However, she says, long-term policy is usually associated with sacrificing short-term goals, which may be difficult to be understood by the general public. When everyone’s voice counts, those that are good at shaping people’s opinions would influence the policy more than those that are intelligent. In this case, transparency actually mitigates the policy quality. It is important to have an effective system monitoring the feedback effects on the policy making.

In its most basic form, “policy transparency” refers to the process of government putting out information to allow people to comment and improve on governance.

Former Governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels argued in The Washington Post that while heightened transparency means public officials behave more responsibly “knowing that the public is watching”, excessive “openness obsession” can also reduce the effectiveness of government.

“But even water has a fatal dosage level. Too much exercise can be unhealthy. Attempts to eliminate almost all forms of confidential interaction in government come with downsides. The current obsession with transparency is starting to take a similar toll. In a host of ways, government has been rendered less nimble, less talented and less effective,” Daniels argued.

But perceptions that some countries might have moved too far to crack down on behind-closed-doors decision-making – and in the process sacrificed speed and agility in policy formulation – are not supported by all players.

The global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, which is funded in part by governments around the world, publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index giving countries a score from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Its 2017 report found “the majority of countries are making little or no progress in ending corruption” with the index finding that more than two-thirds of countries score below 50, with an average score of 43. “Unfortunately, compared to recent years, this poor performance is nothing new,” Transparency International says.

Examples of scores on the 2017 Index around the world include 75 for the US, 37 for Brazil, 29 for Russia, Singapore 84, China 41, Saudi Arabia 49, Australia 77, Sweden 84, France 70 and Japan 73.

But Professor M Ramesh, UNESCO Chair of Social Policy Design in Asia, says people should bear in mind that the fundamental reasons to pursue greater transparency are more about combating corruption and increasing accountability than creating greater prosperity.

“The fastest growing economies in the world do not necessary rank highly on the transparency index,” he says. “There is no evidence that transparency is linked to superior policy performance.”

This is because transparency is not linked to development outcomes; rather, it promotes accountability, democracy, participation, and curbs corruption. These are process indicators. Good policy is still needed to be successful, and that is a separate issue.

“Transparency can be a good thing, but not necessarily so.”

Professor Ramesh says the demand for transparency can lead to some officials to procrastinate decisions or not recording how and why they made the decision they did. For example, India has a strong right to information act which has led government officials, by some accounts, to use WhatsApp, which is encrypted, in order to avoid leaving track of their communications.

Indeed, while champions of developments such as blockchain claim they prove transactions can be more transparent and secure in the digital age, others say new technologies such as WhatsApp are threatening to throw a totally new and comprehensive blanket of darkness over business and government transactions.

Transparency also sits uneasily with concern for privacy, which have been exposed to unprecedented risks with the rise of digital media.

In fact, while the growth of digital apps that make text and email messages disappear may be welcome to Americans seeking to guard their privacy, open government advocates fear they are being misused by public officials to conduct business in secret and evade transparency laws.

“Those kind of technologies literally undermine, through the technology itself, state open government laws and policies. And they come on top of the misuse of other technologies, like people using their own private email and cellphones to conduct business. If transparency is to be useful, we need to think through what exactly do we want from it. Good intentions are not enough,” says Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.