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  • Writer's pictureMiriam

Why is Transparency so Murky?

photograph of binders on shelves

Does your organization promise transparency? Do your managers, board members or elected officials hype your transparency as a core value of your work? There's a pretty good chance that you have been in at least one meeting where the issue of transparency has been on the agenda.

I genuinely love transparency. As a communicator, I think the hubbub around information access these days is great. But, like so many things that become buzzy, there are conflicting interpretations of what "being transparent" means. Not only that, but frequently we drastically, although often unintentionally, overpromise and underdeliver when it comes to being open with our information and data.

What do we mean by transparency when we talk about our organizational information and data? Unfortunately, the answer varies widely from person to person and organization to organization. To some, transparency means what the law requires and not a single thing more. To others, transparency is total data access for all. For most of us, the answer lies somewhere in between those two extremes.

On face value, "transparency" is complete openness. Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy. It's true that there are legal limits on what can be released that require more attention than simply opening the door wide and letting folks in - think social security numbers. But even if we do simply release everything, data without context is often far closer to translucency than transparency.

Think of it this way - you receive a bill for services but all of the itemized details are referred to by abbreviations. What could "LC" mean? What about "LH?" Why does "CR" cost three times "MLH?" Or, imagine you ask for the definition of a word and are handed a stack of unbound dictionary pages. With a bill, you might be able to muddle out the answer. With the pages, you can take hours and hours to find the one thing you need. Technically, you have the data, but is that really transparency? Much like removing jargon from our language, data needs to be made easier to understand.

When we simply disgorge data from our agencies, we are setting the people who receive it up to fail. When we set people up to fail, we have, to be blunt, failed them.

With every request for information, or decision to make data public, we should provide the interpretation tools or education to assist the requestor (and anyone else) in understanding and using it. True and thoughtful transparency is when we, as keepers of information, help those who may be coming to the information for the first time to know what they are getting. We open not just our raw data files, but also our process. We invite our constituencies and customers into conversation with us. In short, we build engaged and informed communities of users and citizens.

Particularly in government agencies, there are limits to what we can and cannot release. Our obligation when we cannot release information is to make sure that we provide a clear and well-reasoned "why." Giving that reason is, in itself, transparency in action. If you can't articulate a "why" with confidence, you may need to reevaluate whether the information you are seeking to protect should be protected. The days of "because we say so" as an acceptable answer to the public are long over, as well they should be.

The good news is that transparency is completely achievable, it just requires us to be thoughtful, deliberate and engaged.

Interested in being truly and effectively transparent? Drop me a line.


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