Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Trouble with Transparency

To say that the idea of "transparency" is frequently raised in the public sphere would be an understatement. [Full disclosure: I have been known to use that word myself.]

References to transparency are hardly unique to Unit 4. In Tuesday's Election 2016 Summary in the New York Times, for example, the quote selected to highlight Carly Fiorina's campaign thus far was "Mrs. Clinton has not been transparent about a whole set of things that matter."

Everyone loves transparency. It's up there politically with apple pie and the American flag.

Let's see if we can recognize transparency in action, shall we?
  • 9/17/15 "Unit 4: 'We're looking into' McKinley" (News-Gazette)
  • 9/21/15 "Updated: McKinley YMCA owner: Unit 4 not interested in facility" (News-Gazette)
  • 9/22/15 "Unit 4 board president talks facilities" (News-Gazette/WDWS audio file)
This series of interviews in local media confirms without a doubt that 1) Leon Jeske is selling the former McKinley YMCA property and 2) Unit 4 may or may not buy the property at an undetermined time for an undetermined price for undetermined uses.

This is transparency.

Transparency on a superficial level is a metaphor for clarity, for being able to see and understand as much as possible, for finding a window and a front-row seat at that window. Transparency allows light to shine in areas that are murky and unclear, to allow those who don't trust a process to monitor it with their own eyes.

Political transparency, however, is actually a metaphor for trust. It is a promise that the messy and complicated nature of big public decisions will not be hidden from the public eye. It is an acknowledgment that few processes are direct or clear. Along the way, different players will have different agendas: Property owners with property for sale wish to sell it. Journalists want to disseminate information with accuracy and speed, as a story is unfolding and likely before it is resolved. And everyone wishes their opinions to be heard.

So when a School Board President says that a meeting is "informational only," and that the Board as a whole will not discuss the details "until we are all together" at a public meeting, only those who trust the messenger will consider such statements transparent.

Transparency from a public body is not particularly efficient, nor is it always realistically possible. But as an ideal, just like flags and apple pie, I think it is a promise worth seeking.

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