Tuesday, October 23, 2018


393. Openness, transparency and trust

Here I give an intermezzo, in the present series on economics, on an issue of trust that I came across.

In a Dutch newspaper it was said, recently, that transparency, with demands for openness about what is going on, is antithetical to trust, is a form of control.

By contrast, I have been arguing, in this blog and elsewhere, that openness is necessary for trust.

What now? Who is right?

I argued that openness is needed to demonstrate trustworthiness, in admitting errors before t
hey are detected by the partner, trying to mend the problems that result, and promising to make an effort to prevent similar errors in future, in the exercise of ‘voice’. It is voluntary

By contrast, transparency is imposed, not voluntary, indeed a form of control. It reduces the room for action for the other, and that is the opposite of trust, which is giving room.

The difference lies in what the partner is to be open about, and whether it is imposed or voluntary.

Now one might argue that if openness is needed for trust, it is no longer voluntary but necessary, imposed. A might demand that B be open, ‘or else’.

But A cannot enforce this: how does he know whether B is holding something back? He can only enforce his demand by specifying what B is to be open about. And the whole point of openness is that relations are uncertain, and you cannot specify in advance what can happen, so that it has to be left to B to tell what comes up and needs to be reported.

Demanding transparency, specifying in advance what needs to be reported, is part of the old control mode of managing relations, as if one knows what may come up so that one can manage it.

The point of professional work is that it cannot be caught in specific protocols, as argued and shown in the literature on ‘communities of practice’.

The discussion on transparency in the newspaper came up in the context of politics. That yields another point. There, the claim of transparency is that in a democracy politicians have to be open about policy making and negotiation while those are going on. That yields another problem.

Politics in a democracy is a messy business of finding a compromise between standpoints that at the start seem irreconcilable. In groping around for a solution one has to test concessions one might make, to see what concessions will be made in return, to try and achieve some balance. If during that process every move has to be in the open, in the trials and errors of compromise before a balance has been struck, constituencies will rise in protest, blocking the process.

How about openness there, then? After a balance has been struck one should bring the arguments into the open, with pros and cons, and put that to the electorate. And then one needs to be open in not parading it as better than it is, raising expectations one cannot fulfil, because that is most destructive of trust.