Theory, Philosophy of Transparency Explored

24 May 2011

Papers exploring the theories and philosophies of transparency, and even its definition, were presented at The First Global Conference on Transparency Research held May 19-20 at Rutgers University-Newark, N.J.  (See overall report in

“Questioning the moral attachment to transparency,” by Clare Birchall, University of Kent, UK, expressed concern that “the left” has “abandoned secrecy and its productive possibilities.”

She stated:

The lessons and strategies of secrecy have been obscured, that is, by a moral attachment to disclosure. Recognizing this could open up a new public discourse: one that does not presume the political and moral alignments of concealment and disclosure.

Birchall concluded:

The secret is powerful – but not only for the opportunities of control and malfeasance the right, or state, has exploited. It can interrupt transparency and promote resistance and change – elements vital to democracy. The secret, qua singularity, can stage the ethical demand of democracy.

Such formulations lack political expediency – they do not lend themselves to attractive data visualisation; they cannot be the basis of a ‘movement’, or a positive community of action in the way that transparency can. But to ignore secrecy, to deny its status as a common resource or strategy, means that it will remain a tool of ideology and power.

The definition of transparency, which he called “T,” was raised by Guy Seidman, Professor of Law, the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel, in a paper with one of the more amusing conference titles: “Lawyers are from Mars, Political Scientists are from Venus:  Who Gets Transparency Right?

“My main point,” he wrote, “is not that lawyers and political scientists disagree on the definition of T or that they have different views on the substantive contents of T, the technical aspects of its implementation, the ways to measure its effectiveness or its theoretical desirability. It is that jurists show little interest in these matters, mostly leaving them to social scientists to think through. Law is self absorbed.” Political scientists, he said, “ …. show little interest in the doctrinal problems of the law, only in its ability to produce results, such as the spectacular spread of formal freedom of information statues across the world.”

Seidman also cited data showing a rapid rise in the use of the term “transparency” in legal databases.

“Scholarly effervescence” about transparency “has not been underpinned by any collective understanding of ‘transparency’, much less any debate on what constitutes transparency, what does not, and how to go about assessing its quality,” wrote political scientist Greg Michener and Katherine Bersch, a Ph.D. candidate, at the University of Texas at Austin.

Contending that the availability of information “frequently masquerades as transparency, false transparency,” they stated that “what makes Transparency different from information is its accessibility” and lay out parameters for distinguishing varying degrees of quality.

The right to access information about human rights violations, as defined by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, was laid out by Michael Camilleri of the Special Rapporteur’s office.

Access should provided even if the archives in question pertain to the security agencies or military or police agencies, the paper states, and the obligation to disclose in such cases “generates a set of affirmative obligations.”

Sundrine Baume, from the University of Lausanne, examined opinions favorable to the notion of transparency in order to grasp the intricacy of this concept, reaching back to Rousseau, Kant, Bentham and Constant. She wrote:

“Having conducted an analysis consisting of making an inventory of both the positive and negative associations of the transparency concept stated by these authors, it will appear that transparency can be divided into six dimensions, that of legality, virtue, veracity, responsibility/accountability, honour and control.”

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