09 September 2010

Does Transparency Matter?

The transparency discussion that I compiled started as one that focused on the lack of transparency but evolved into including a second string of thought. When Scott Gilmore entered the discussion, he argued that Till’s focus on transparency was misplaced. Till defended his stance and the exchange went back and forth a little more.

What interested me was that the back and forth was not really connecting, but I think that it is something which needs to be teased out a bit more. I would like to present what I have gathered to be the two competing ideas of Transparency. Show what they say is the strength of their camp and add what the other perceives to be a weakness. From there, I hope for comments and ideas to fill in where I might have missed something and, more importantly, begin to weigh in on how they see the two competing ideas.

What Kind of Transparency?

Camp 1: Total Transparency
This is what is supported by groups such as Transparency International. They state clearly that they believe organizations should be transparent about records as long as their release do not put anyone in harms way. By being transparent, the public can have a more complete understanding of how funds are being used. For donors, it is a right to know how your money will be used and for citizens, we should have access to information about programs that we fund with our tax dollars. Do so will prevent the “inevitability of corruption.”

Camp 2: Transparency of Results
Gilmore argues and some of the NGOs agree, that what should matters most are results. To quote Scott (note: there is intentional hyperbole here):
When people like me demand transparency and say “We want to know where the money went.”, I think we actually mean “We want to know what the money did.” In this case, I really don’t care if World Vision blew 90% of their budget on strippers and Grey Goose vodka. What I want to know is what did they deliver? What changed on the ground? How many people were helped? I want transparent impact.

Camp 1: Total Transparency
Complete transparency will alter competition as it will allow other organizations to underbid and win important grants/contracts. How the money is spent matters, but just because it is listed in the budget as one thing does not mean that it is being spent to do other things. So, raw numbers can be misleading and provide little in terms of actual understanding in regards to the effectiveness of the program(s).

Camp 2: Transparency of Results
Complete accountability must exist across all programs. In order to understand this, data must be made public. This includes budgets. Also, results can often be changed and manipulated in reports. The raw numbers do not allow an organization to wear anything, or as Bill Westerly said,
Der qwestion uff transpearency I have long ago answered. Der answer: just wear loincloth.
With more information and less room to hide a more complete picture of an organization can take shape. To accept anything less would be unacceptable. I should note that the criticism of this also focuses on the fact that the shift towards looking at results is a rhetorical trick that allows NGOs to say they want to be transparent without releasing complete budgets.


Though different to a small extent, the two camps want the focus of transparency to be on two different final points. What interests me is that if the second camp is right, what is the need for transparency? If programs are successful across many measures, does it matter how the money is spent to accomplish it? Is transparency a straw man?

Maybe that would be taking too far. What do you think? What camp do you fall under? Do you want to suggest an alternative? Is it a waste of time and resources to be so concerned with the transparency of NGOs?

Leave comments as to what you think and why.