Why haven’t we monetized Transparency yet?

In a world short on trust, perhaps making things more open is the best way forward.

It perhaps seems like a question with an obvious answer; “why hasn’t everybody invested in transparency?”. Why don’t companies report how much their employees are paid? Why don’t government departments, schools, hospitals, police stations and all state institutions make their financial accounts public?

Of course there are many current reasons given why to these questions such as personal privacy rights of individuals to not disclose their salary and the belief voiced by people in positions of responsibility that they are undermined by a system which allows the public to see every decision they make without the context behind those decisions. But conceptually, to not need Transparency requires Trust. And if we are all honest, trust is more than just a little lacking these days.

Whether its MP’s expenses, Leveson inquiry, the Catholic church’s now almost annual child molestation stories, the Libor scandal, the latest tax avoidance scandal by Google, Amazon and Starbucks……there aren’t too many people left that still inspire trust to the British public. And this is why “Transparency Branding” is so interesting.

Trust is now at a price-premium and the consumer demand has never been higher for services both private and public that people can depend on. For the private sector all employees could gain from an open pay system which would force employees and staff to acknowledge and prove that their remuneration was justified and would be a powerful force against discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or age. A more open set of accounts would also put to bed any suggestions of tax avoidance and could help in certain cases, like that of supermarkets, to demonstrate that suppliers were being given a fair deal.

For government the results could be a greater public trust in the political system. By making many details transparent from the public sector such as the financial details of schools and hospitals, it will be easier to have open debates and discussions because the facts are commonly established. By creating an equal knowledge playing field politicians would be able to ask the public and get responses in a far more effective manner because the facts are commonly established. This would also help to take away the necessity for people to trust politicians when they make decisions and instead allow the facts to speak for themselves in certain cases.

The emphasis thus moves from a asking what people would like in an ideal world to what people can have from the current system and thus increased perception of the realities the public sector faces is healthy for democracy. If the public can see for themselves where money is short and where it is being spent this may facilitate a more reasoned and cooperative framework for discussions with dissatisfied pressure groups and public figures.

To put this concept in practise I want to elucidate a quick image and leave it open for you to decide if my conclusions are correct or not:

Imagine 2010 and the coalition enter government office and before spending adjustments or tax cuts are made, the true financial situation of each government department was made public. Just imagine that and how powerful that would have been. Not only would it have levelled the Labour party’s credibility as a fiscally prudent party but it would also have forced any opponents of austerity to argue based on facts in the public knowledge which they could be held accountable against. Take it even further, when councils first made cuts and local services were reduced and members of the public began to complain then with an open set of accounts the government and civil service could very reasonably ask the disaffected groups to suggest alternatives and then return the argument to one of raw facts, thus undermining the ability of opposition groups to play on pure emotions.

By becoming more transparent government and businesses become stronger not weaker. It is easy to mobilise public sentiment against large organisations by stirring up people’s emotions with little evidence, actual facts or reasoned argument because they can play on the narrative that secrets are being kept from the public. The more transparent government and companies get, the harder it will be to make those arguments and with that will become a greater public trust in these institutions once more. After all, if you don’t believe the government or a company but everything is transparent then you can always check the facts yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Why haven’t we monetized Transparency yet?

  1. Nicole

    A few immediate reactions; not necessarily very well thought out nor articulated:

    1 – Even ignoring that various rights of privacy are enshrined in laws, my immediate reaction to someone asking me to voluntarily give up information is ‘NO’. I don’t have trust in the storage mechanisms, the ability for whoever I’m giving that info to to make it anonymous enough for public usage, or that they can keep it safe from other parties who may want to use it for things that I hadn’t initially considered nevermind consented to. Basically I don’ think the infrastructure is there, and it seems to me that such infrastructure couldn’t really be developed piecemeal by individual sectors or organisations. Add in the who guards the guards argument and it’s looking quite bleak already. Although the idea of having more information about governments and companies is lovely, as soon as I’m actually asked to participate by being part of that transparency my selfish paranoia kicks in and if there’s enough people just like me, then this would be bound to fail.

    2 – The concept of monetization….I sort of feel like this is already starting to be done. At least with regards to companies, and in particular listed companies, there are pretty stringent rules requiring them to disclose financials etc to their shareholders, and anything that would affect their share price to the market more or less immediately (bar some exceptions). So if you’ve paid to become a shareholder, you receive this information. I would love for this to be extended to government bodies and councils, as local residents could be equated to shareholders seeing as we do all pay money to them via tax and don’t get nearly as much info on their accounting and budgets as if we were actually investing in a company. Furthermore, the whole idea of monetising transparency feels hinky – you posit that it would increase public strength by improving knowledge, but if you make people pay for the knowledge doesn’t that just mean that rich people still end up better informed and better off in the end? And it’s human nature (and capitalism) to use that advantage to dick over someone else, that someone else being the poorer less informed person, so how has anything actually changed?

    3 – I’m sure there’s some sort of national security argument to be made about making too much government budget stuff transparent. I shall leave it to one of our better informed friends to make this argument (philip, and then for a fun rebuttal, mark)

    4 – About this openness re salaries. I’m not entirely sure this works in our favour. I think there’s sort of an underlying feeling with professional jobs that you slog like hell in the first few years for the promise of filthy amounts of lucre in the future. That unknown sum would be significantly reduced if people knew how much it really was. Let’s not go messing with a system that we’re going to benefit from in a decade.

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