Being transparent

windowIn the world of international development the concept of  ‘transparency’ is what the philosopher GH Mead called a cult value. On the one  hand, Mead said, cult values are part of our heritage and make us what we are: so our belief in fairness, for example  has played an important part of how we think of ourselves and how our society has developed. However, cult values are idealisations shorn of all constraint and describe states which we are very unlikely ever to achieve. They become cult values in Mead’s terms when there is a threat of exclusion for those who express disagreement with or dissention from the value. In the United States it is a serious charge to be thought of as being anti-business, in the UK it is a serious accusation to be thought of as cheating. So in the world of international development it would be hard to make a case against being transparent.

Predominantly transparency has been taken up as an issue between those governments and donors from the North and institutions in the South who receive money from them.  In other words, donors require those they are donating to, to be transparent with what they are doing with the money. More recently the theme of transparency has become more reflexive as staff in donor agencies have begun to think about how they can make their practices more transparent to their partner agencies in the South and those communities ultimately they aim to benefit. In general, those likely to be the least transparent are those large and powerful institutions who are making demands of transparency of others.

On the one hand there is clearly a lot to commend the idea of opening up our practices to those we work with, and for them to do so to us so that we might increase trust and the quality of our working relationship. However, to believe that this is always possible, or even desirable in all cases is to ignore the power relationships between people which constrain total openness. Equally,  day to day secrets and partial disclosures are necessary to maintain organisational life. Even with long term and trusted colleagues there are sometimes areas of the relationship which are difficult to address and it may not even be productive to do so.

I was recently supporting two teams who had been working together on a project and who had met together to discuss how this had gone. The discussion seemed to me, as a sympathetic outsider, to be very frank and open, but then found myself being drawn into side conversations by staff from one team or another about what they thought was really going on. To a certain extent this is inevitable and may even sustain the more public conversation which is taking place. It was not a way of plotting against, or decrying members of the other team, but a way of making sense of what was being said and rehearsing and testing out how open and transparent to be.

So it is between organisations, often in the South, who receive money and those who donate it. When one side is in need of money and the other side has it there is automatically a relationship of power which will condition the way that transparency is practised. There will be all kinds of situations where both sides will be wrestling with what transparency actually means in the day to day engagement: how much to say, how much to leave unsaid and how much actively to cover over. To do so is a requirement of generative relations. Those in less powerful situations have a lot more to lose by being fully transparent and are also exposed to greater humiliation and shame, particularly if the transparency is unequal.

In situations where there is an accusation of a ‘lack of transparency’ there is often a lot more going on than simple dishonesty. As an ideal transparency can only be particularlised in particular situations between particular people who will have their own evolving history of engagement. And it takes a lot more negotiation seriously to understand what might be going on.


One thought on “Being transparent

  1. sbilling

    I think you make some excellent points about human / power relating and cult values here. Day to day secrets and partial disclosures are absolutely imperative to maintaining relationships. Our choices are about who we keep day to day secrets with, and what parts we disclose in order to achieve our objectives (or intentions), maintain our relationships and be seen to be doing good.

    Basically, you are challenging the notion that the purpose of communication is a full transfer of meaning from one party to another. Eisenberg, in his book Strategic Ambiguities also challenged this. It is commonly thought that the purpose of communication is the full transfer of meaning from sender to receiver. Eisenberg points out that this is not so. Just imagine if this were the case. Your mother would know that your true meaning was “Shut up and stop nagging me you old trout.” In organisational settings, the careful revealing of information that will serve one’s intentions is a key attribute in successfully achieving one’s aims.


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