Whenever a costly and useless bureaucratic reform is proposed, it is said to be “in the interests of transparency.” Sometimes the word “accountability” is added, or—for extra force—“democratic accountability.” The whole mantra is reeled off with the sub-cortical fluency of “Catholic and Apostolic Church.” It is an idiom of benediction, soothing and meaningless.
In a not too distant past, only windows (and occasionally prose styles and psyches) were transparent. Then the word was taken up by management gurus. “Corporate transparency” became all the rage. Deferential as ever to the private sector, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair imposed transparency requirements on public bodies. Even the look of offices became more transparent, with glass dividing walls disclosing luminous clusters of Apple Macs.
Yet for all this fury of transparency, the actual conduct of business and government has grown steadily more opaque. A revelation of the recent crash was that very few bankers, let alone regulators and politicians, fully understood the products they dealt in. Transparency directives are written in a style that is far from transparent. Blair’s most important decisions were taken not in Cabinet but in the obscurity of his Downing Street “den,” surrounded by a few close aides.
This apparent paradox is easily explained. As social trust decays, so the machinery of accountability expands to fill the void. A simulacrum of honesty replaces the substance. Imposing “transparency” on organisations is often like asking someone suspected of lying to repeat his statement, and then to repeat it again, in writing, on official paper. If the initial statement was dubious, why should the reiteration be any less so? All that has been added is extra paperwork.
Where they are not just waffle, transparency requirements can be positively stifling, for their tendency is to replace individual judgement with fixed rules. Universities, for example, increasingly accept students solely on the basis of A-levels, disregarding personal statements and references. Why? Transparency of course, plus (sotto voce) an economisation of labour time. Yet given the dismal state of A-levels, the effect of this reform has been to promote solid mediocrity at the expense of wayward brilliance. Transparency favours the dull, for only the dull are transparent.
To find Edward Skidelsky’s books via Amazon, click here: [amazonshowcase_389f6c015ec637c13989aa93ca8f678e]