Transparency: Unintended Consequences

By Dr Ben Worthy

Transparency is a force for good but can prove controversial. Although governments are moving towards internal co-operation, the devil is often in the detail, as seen with the G8 tax transparency pledge which has been heavily criticised. The ongoing Quality Care ‘cover up’ shows how transparency can have many, sometimes unexpected, consequences.

On 30th May Dr Tero Ekkila presented from his new book on the impact, unintended or otherwise, of transparency in Finland, one of the world leaders in openness. You can see his presentation here. The event was organised by the Finnish Institute, Embassy of FinlandCenter for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck University and the University of Helsinki (see the Institute’s blog here).

Finland has had Freedom of Information legislation since 1951 and has been pushing transparency further ever since. In fact, Finland is the home of the idea of government openness, pioneered in the 18th century by a cleric named Anders Chydenius (see his foundation here) and pamphleteer named Peter Forskål (see his 1759 pamphlet here).

Dr Ekkila pointed out that, despite this pedigree, exactly what transparency means changes over time. In Finland the concept itself has shifted from the idea of information simply being ‘public’ to a more economic idea of being ‘transparent’ about performance and benchmarking through Open Data and regular publication. Transparency is in the eye of the beholder.

This shift can have all sorts of unintended consequences. In Finland, high levels of trust in government combined with openness has led to some unusual steps, such as census data being available for sale or parts of government you would expect to be closed using openness to show how well they are performing.  I offered a few reflections on how the UK experience of openness compared.

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion with Christopher Cook (Financial Times), Paul Gibbons (SOAS) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Local Government Association) about the changing context in the UK around FOI and now, increasingly, Open Data and online transparency. They discussed the shifting aims of transparency, given the increasing emphasis on the economic benefits of data from the government. They asked who, crucially, will use the new data the government is publishing.

The panel pointed out that there may not be a clear distinction between ‘open’ data and ‘closed’ information. Given the complexity of the new data and need for specialists software, there may be a ’middle ground’ whereby specialists can use useful data under licence to disseminate. To make the picture even more complicated, there are growing concerns over the reverse side of transparency, privacy, not least with recent PRISM revelations.

The final question from the day was how all this information fits together. As our idea of transparency changes, time will tell whether all this new information is an empowering add on or a distracting alternative to a centuries old pressure for open government.

Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck.