Monday, March 29, 2021

Transparency’s Dark Side

There is a dark side of transparency. Today, it’s a tool used as much by the corrupt and dishonest as it is by those who are actually honest. It’s used as an illusion to give the appearance of honesty without the intent of being honest. You can simply claim to be transparent, and create a halo of honesty about you, without actually being honest. 

Two factors empower this dark side of transparency. We’ve discussed them a lot in this book. 

The first is our deluge of information and facts disguised as entertainment. Even the most open and transparent systems must compete with buckets of information that are more interesting. 

The second is our poor information diets—that we choose information we want to hear over information that reveals the truth makes the competition all the more difficult. 

Whether it is the press, the government, or businesses, without conscious and deliberate consumption, transparency does more harm than good. While it can be used as a means of disinfecting a system, transparency can also be used by the corrupt to create a false association with integrity and honesty. 

A member of Congress could become a public paragon of honesty and integrity by live-streaming video from his congressional office, yet privately be a crook by selling out America in the coffee shop across the street. When he’s caught, he could say, “How dare you question my integrity! I have cameras in my office,” and make the prosecution all the more difficult. 

What’s worse is that Joe Public becomes unwittingly complicit in the crimes created by unethical people being transparent about their dishonesty. If a crime is committed with all the sunlight and electric lights in the world shone upon it, then the responsibility for catching that crime gets, in part, placed at the feet of the public. 

Transparency in a system lets the real enforcement officials off the hook. 

The legend of Kitty Genovese is that she was stabbed to death in broad daylight in New York City, and not a single bystander called for help. The story itself is a bit of a myth (though no less tragic), but serves as an example of how sunlight, the electric light, and calls for help can’t stop a crime if a public is either failing to pay attention or unwilling to take a stand. 

Today, America is much like Ms. Genovese, bleeding to death on the sidewalk while the nation is distracted by partisan rhetoric. 

Take Recovery.gov, for example. The site was heralded by the Obama administration as an unparalleled view of a huge domestic spending package: the 2009, $ 787 billion American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Its function? To combat waste, fraud, and abuse by the system—to ensure that the taxpayer’s money was spent wisely and prudently, free from fraud and profiteering. 

The Chairman of the Recovery Board, Earl Devaney, said upon the launch of the full Recovery.gov website on September 29th, 2009: “I believe that this historic level of transparency will help drive accountability in many new ways. While this Board and countless other federal, state and local oversight agencies will be looking for fraud and waste, every American citizen who clicks on this website has the potential to become what I’m calling a Citizen IG [inspector general]. That’s right—we need you to help us identify fraud, waste or mismanagement in your community.” 

To date, Recovery.gov lists one account of fraud: an incident in South Carolina that ended in the conviction of five people, and saved the taxpayer a paltry two million dollars. Did a “citizen IG” find and report this crime using Recovery.gov? No. It came from “on-site agency officials.” 

With our political information, it’s the same thing. We can make all the lobbyist meetings, all the campaign contributions, all the electioneering, every vote, every committee hearing, and every cocktail party open and available, online and in real-time, and even hand deliver them to every person’s doorstep—we can even have a giant federal agency label all our info-nutritional information, carefully and ethically. 

But it’s likely to be about as effective as our nutritional labels. Like the calorie counts from food, transparency is ineffective at arming the masses unless there’s a strong will in the public to arm itself with the knowledge of how this information affects us, and how to effectively read the metaphorical labels. 

People will be no less obese—and no less ignorant—unless they have the will to consume less of the stuff that’s bad for them, and more of the stuff that’s good for them. While transparency can help the problem, it alone cannot fix it.
Source: The Information Diet by Clay A. Johnson

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