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‘Transparency’ is all in the eye of the beholder

The Bottom Line

November 4, 2012

CALGARY, AB, Nov. 4,2012/ Troy Media/ – Everybody, it seems, is for transparency. Government is working hard to provide it. Corporations are opening their practices to deliver it. We’ve got oodles of legislation to guaranty it, including the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, the Access to Information Act, Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the . . . well you get the point. Saskatchewan has three Acts ensuring freedom of information all by itself, not including applicable federal legislation.

If everyone was really in favour of transparency, would we really need all this legislation? Freedom of information is much like freedom of speech, everyone is in favour of it until it makes us uncomfortable. Legislation seems less about providing information than ensuring those who have it are not made too uncomfortable by those who want it.

Freedom of information legislation starts by assuming everything is a secret and then details the exceptions, culminating in a list of what information the public can see. Sometimes, this list is framed as a citizen or customer information bill of rights. This sounds good but it’s upside down.

Effective legislation would start with the opposite assumption, building on the foundation that everything is public. Something like;

If it’s in our files, you can see it.

Then, describing three of four exceptions with rational reasons for keeping this information from view. In other words, the burden of proof would be on those wishing to keep things a secret, not on those demanding disclosure. This would have the added benefit of making legislation a good deal shorter.

This reverse burden now plays out in day to day operations of industry and government. It used to be requests for information were met with earnest efforts in providing it, or clear reasons why making the information public was not possible. Now the first response is an automatic ‘No!’. Filing a freedom of information request has become step one in the process of getting any information at all. What should be the exception has become the rule.

This isn’t the right direction. Two thousand five hundred years of human scientific and technological advance is built on a foundation of transparency. Scientific studies must be published in sufficient detail that others can replicate the study. Background information, design of the experiment, resulting data and analytical method must all be open to inspection and critique. Learning doesn’t take place any other way.

Ever wondered why new scientific discoveries, especially concerning your health, pop up constantly but never seem to go anywhere? One reason is a form of transparency absenteeism called publication bias. Experiments with positive results tend to get published and receive media attention, while those with negative results, don’t. A new drug, for example, may have gone through 20 trials, but the 19 showing no effect are ignored by journals in favour of the one study showing a positive result. Thus, the impression is given that something has been discovered when the weight of evidence is just the opposite. There is a movement underway in the scientific community, deserving of public support, demanding full transparency in drug testing, with publication of all studies regardless of outcome.

Not everyone supports open access to information though. Bureaucracies have long stood as fortresses against it. Contrary to popular belief, Galileo’s heresy trial by the Inquisition in 1633 wasn’t so much about claiming the world went around the sun as it was writing about it in the common language of the day, Italian. Galileo’s was convicted of transparency.

Bureaucracies now edit, spin, reframe, summarize, simplify, cherry-pick, fold, staple, and otherwise mutilate, information by repackaging it for public consumption. Pharmaceutical companies spend more money marketing drugs than discovering them. Government allocates more resources to selling positive stories of itself than it does improving services to citizens.

The fortress walls need to be taken down and legislation needs to be right side up. Original sources of evidence must be made available. Authors should take accountability by signing reports (as was done years ago) and not hide behind committees. Secondary and tertiary repackaging shouldn’t be accepted by the public or the media without primary source material. Inexpensive means of publication and search using web-based technologies makes all this possible.

Trust in public institutions is slipping. Corporate credibility with customers and the public is diminishing. Citizen engagement in democratic processes is declining. Some real transparency would help.

Troy Media columnist Robert Gerst is a Partner in Charge of Operational Excellence and Research & Statistical Methods at Converge Consulting Group Inc. He is author of The Performance Improvement Toolkit: The Guide to Knowledge-Based Improvement and numerous articles in peer-reviewed publications.

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