Discussing #Transparency…Transparently

I keep coming up against this issue in learning this new position, so I’m going to open the can of worms a crack and see what happens.

I’m not even sure this is possible, but let’s try to discuss transparency…transparently.

Sunshine and Open Records laws set a standard, but by setting quorum requirements on meetings and requiring citizens to request information these laws leave open the question of how transparent an organization must be — without having to ask for it.
I will crack the can open with a couple of seemingly relevant questions, but here again, as before, I admit I don’t have the answer to either of these.
1. What is transparency?
I’ll attempt this one, knowing that everyone has their own definition.  With a small nod to the web, my idea is to move from information to results in a sort of “observe, orient, decide, act” (or OODA) way.
Transparency, in the sense that it seems to be used in a public or political environment, is: 

  • Clear definition of terms [T-erms], 
  • Clear, complete, and accurate information freely and openly available [I-nformation], 
  • Open discussion or deliberation on information to determine facts or true beliefs as being different from guesses or opinions [F-acts], 
  • Open discussion or deliberation on actions to be taken to achieve defined outcomes based on those facts [D-iscussion], 
  • Open decision-making resolving actions or facts [R-esolution], 
  • Open execution of actions or documentation of facts [E-xecution], and
  • Open tracking of the outcomes of actions thus leading to new definitions for terms or new information [trac-K-ing], thus restarting the cycle.
Wow, what a problem…already!  There is so much to unravel.  I won’t take the time, but we may need to define “clear”, “complete”, “open”, “free”, “discussion”, “information”, “outcomes”, “facts”, “actions”, “decision”, “resolve”, “execution”, and “tracking” before this can ever be considered a finished product, but let’s move on.

I will assume for the moment that a political system that meets these criteria is fully transparent. Specifically, that an organization is transparent when the [T] and [I] criteria are met willingly or under the Open Records laws and that [F], [D], and [R] criteria have been met willingly or in accordance with the Sunshine laws.  Meeting the [E] criteria should be observed by all with [K] criteria being the metrics to judge progress or success (whatever those terms mean).  [K] is met in a manner similar to [T] and [I].

Before continuing, I’ll offer one other, much shorter, definition.  To the extent that these criteria are met willingly, transparency is trust.

2. When do we have enough transparency?
Sticking with the long definition, now it gets really hard, because transparency is clearly in the eye of the beholder, often based on one’s definitions of those terms I just listed above.  Today, my belief is that we have enough transparency when a majority of people involved or affected by decisions or actions believe they can support those decisions or actions as they are executed and tracked toward acceptable outcomes.  I believe this is a fundamental concept in a “participative democracy”, another highly loaded term.
Here I will put on my economist hat and say we have enough transparency when the incremental benefit of more transparency is less than the incremental cost of more transparency.  How much do we want to pay for having all information available instantaneously, all of the time?  How much should we pay to have all decisions rendered, acted upon, and tracked with complete visibility to all, 24×365?  These are clearly not questions I can answer, but they are very real and at the heart of so much of the decisions public organizations make.
Put another way though, based on the simple definition, we have enough when we can trust each other to meet the various criteria, and by implication, proactively and willingly.
This is complicated.  I’m taking a risk by even raising it, but there it is.  What do you think?

[For the non-Twitter users, the # symbol tags this post for visibility into a large circle of folks watching this topic.  I welcome feedback from anyone.]

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