My wife has been on a course recently where students became exercised by issues of honesty and transparency. During the discussion, they became hyphenated, as if they were effectively aspects of the same thing. But from a trends point of view, clearly they’re not.

Webster’s Online defines honesty as “fairness and straightforwardness of conduct”. It is a social norm in most societies, seen by the typical legal sanctions against forms of dishonesty – as well as social sanctions. Most people prize honesty as a quality in their friends and family.

In contrast, how have we ended up with the current trend towards “transparency”, especially in public and organisational life? Not because organisations are honest; for if they were, no-one would care whether they were transparent or not. We would be happy to accept them at face value.

Most people would rather have honest relationships than transparent ones. Transparency is about maintaining public confidence in process by displaying the transactions which make up processes to public view to maintain confidence in their integrity. In theory, this ought to make them less open to abuse. But it tends not to.

Since banking has been on my mind recently, an example from there should serve. Until at least the mid-eighties, insider dealing was widespread in the investment sector – so widespread that it wasn’t perceived as impropriety or theft. As mores changed, this basically dishonest behaviour was replaced by complex bonus and performance schemes which – at least in public companies – were published, transparently, could be inspected and even challenged, and which all but universally had the effect of rewarding average performance excessively. In the face of changing public attitudes, transparency simply replaced the lucrative benefits of one kind of insider access with another kind.

So transparency becomes an attempt to limit the abuse of power within organisations. But you don’t get that from transparency; it comes from accountability. That involves “speaking truth to power“. And that’s a whole different trend.

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