Who’s afraid of transparency?
Readers of this blog might know that I’m a strong believer in openness and transparency and applying them in knowledge management and development work.
There are an increasing number of initiatives, conferences, papers, articles, interviews all extolling the virtues of greater transparency and openness in government and in development. This is a good thing.
But with all the buzz this topic is getting, it might be worth considering that if transparency is so great, why aren’t we doing it already?
In some instances it could really be that elites have something to hid or something to lose and don’t want you to know what they are doing with your money, or in their name, or that people are covering up fraud and other nefarious activities. But I don’t think these are the most prevalent reasons why transparency of public money or aid funding, or performance feedback isn’t more widespread. Here are a few more mundane reasons:
1. Transparency is expensive. Yes, you heard right – it’s actually quite time consuming and potentially expensive to set up the necessary mechanisms to make your finances public in a timely, standardized way online. Those organizations which have signed up to IATI have needed to make careful preparations in order to meet the reporting requirements including looking at their accounting systems, cleaning up their data, designing the web interface where the data is made available. This requires, time, money and technical expertise. The degree of work might depend on the size and complexity of the organization, as well as the state of the existing financial reporting systems within the organization (Of course the flip side is this is also a great opportunity to get your internal financial reporting in order). The challenge here is that while the benefits of transparency (greater trust, improved efficiency etc.) are hard to measure the costs are very visible.
2. Anything you say could be used against you in evidence. Some organizations (certainly including the United Nations) have a groups of people who are looking for any evidence or story that can be used to highlight how inefficient, inept etc. an organization is. Providing a whole host of new information on the internal working of your organization provides a whole host of new angles to explore and data to (mis)interpret to prove your point. This means that you need to be prepared to receive this (possibly unfair) criticism and have a plan to deal with it including prepping your communications team on what is likely to come up and how to handle it. Similarly, in the context of shrinking aid budgets organizations are afraid that whatever comes out through greater openness may be used by a donor as a pretext to reduce funding.
3. Data for micromanagement. A less frequently discussed fear among agencies which receive significant external donor funds is that greater data can lead to more external micromanagement i.e. donors using the data not only to identify and prioritize fund well performing programmes, but also to intrude into project management, or insist on having a say on budgets not only at a strategic level, but at a more detailed operational level too thus hampering the ability of project managers to do their jobs. This can be a particular risk of budget planning and executing is the only available information on project performance. If parallel efforts are put into place on results reporting (and results are being achieved) then there should be less temptation to micromanage around budget inputs.
4. You first. Relating to the points above both in terms of costs and possible negative scrutiny, then even when transparency is a hot topic, there is little incentive to move first, and a greater one to wait to see what happens to others, learn from their experience (or see whether it all works out at all) and let them deal with the hardships while you sit back smiling knowingly.
I don’t think any of these reasons are insurmountable in the face of strong leadership commitment and public pressure, but it’s nevertheless important to recognize these real and practical challenges and to try in some way to mitigate them if we want transparency to be adopted more widely.