125/365 Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Transparency?

While I’m sure this idea has some connections in my brain to the U.S.’s current hemorrhaging of classified information, the real drive of what I’m about to think through has to do with policy, process, and our ability to come to the table and get work done.

In preparation to be interviewed today, I was asked to take a sheet of paper, visualize in my head the current state of education and then draw it to be explained during my interview.

What I ended up drawing was a series of faces, bisected along the vertical access, appearing angry and contemptuous on the left side and happy and open on the right side. Also, only the right side of each face had an ear. From each of the mouths (right and left sides) I drew lines that made their way to other faces after getting lost in a knot of other lines from other faces in the middle of the paper. I labeled the faces: Educators, Businesses, Students, Communities, Policymakers, Academics.

It wasn’t until I sat down to draw that the problem I’ve been attempting to explain verbally to people for the last few weeks came into focus.

What if our drive for transparency and our expectation of publicly-consumable communication is hindering our ability to get actual work done.

Let’s take policymakers for a start. They, like members of all other groups, are connected to some other set of constituents – peers, voters, allies of other sorts. When they sit down a whatever table is being sat at to work through the problem-of-the-moment, contemporary thinking calls for “transparency” before they even approach said table. They are expected to make known their views on the issue at hand, the other parties, what they plan to do and what they will do for their constituencies. In many cases, during the conversations, they are tweeting and posting to Facebook and updating their constituencies as to their progress. Much of the time, this includes explaining how firmly they are holding to the preconceived notions they touted pre-table.

This transparency of process, of motive, and of intent is harmful. It leaves no room for listening. It commits to a course of action before any other courses can be considered. For these policymakers or any of the other stakeholders practicing this breed of transparency, to do anything other than what is expected would mean the loss of face and (more damaging) the loss of power.

As much as I believe in transparency (and I vigorously do), perhaps it is time to admit not all steps of all processes need be transparent. Perhaps consideration of a new curriculum or policy to be adopted would go differently if those representing the stakeholders were able to be at the table alone so that they might be able to say, “I don’t know what we’re going to do, and I don’t think some of the points you’ve been making are half bad” without worrying about being billed as sellouts to their causes.

I understand the dangers and histories connected to closed-door, back room meetings, and I’m not proposing decision-making free of accountability. Our constant need to know, though, and our constant drive to offer our praise or condemnation before the thinking is through might be impeding progress.

When my students would write in my room, I stepped back. I reasoned it might not be helpful to them or their final products if I looked over their shoulders and said, “That’s what you’re going to write?” in the middle of their sentences.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there.


Thanks to Dean for inadvertently making me think about this stuff.

Image via JayGoldman.

3 thoughts on “125/365 Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Transparency?

  1. I think I agree with you on the effect of transparency right now. Because in a way it’s not really transparent – it’s public relations, a performance designed to motivate certain people. But often the end results of the process aren’t really transparent – the back room is still there. (And if it’s not there physically, it can be created virtually.) And I think you’re getting at one of the reasons why transparency-as-PR happens. There are not a lot of people who are interested in the back-and-forth, stop-and-start process of thinking or working through something. Not-knowing is a weakness that makes the viewer less confident in the person who doesn’t know. So you can’t seem like you don’t know.

    I think that definitely applies to your policymaker example. But there’s another dimension there in which transparency is working as-intended. On a lot of issues, voters or pundits or campaign contributors have already made up their own minds. They want their policymaking representative to toe the line that they have already established. The point of the exercise isn’t dialogue. It’s confirming the already-established position. So less stuff gets done that way, but that may be a feature to some people, not a flaw.

  2. Perhaps I’m too jaded, but I think the policy maker position is not only decided, but is different than the one s/he portrays to constituents.

    We as voters also need to stop treating elected officials as if they need to have the right answer all the time. Instead of being labeled a flip-floper we can praise reasoned and deliberate thinking.

  3. The reality is there is always a line of when there is too much transparency. It’s easy to see it in our personal lives but it’s interesting when we discuss this in terms of public entities. There are probably things we are best not knowing but the challenge comes when someone else makes that determination. Again, this involves trust. When we elect someone, we trust they will make decisions are our behalf that are right. I don’t want to or need to know all the details. Transparency also leads to misunderstanding and unnecessary debate and confusion in some cases as many lack the background and understanding of protocols and historical factors.

    If I had to make a choice, I’d be in favor of greater transparency but it always comes with a great deal of “it depends”.

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