Transparency and Accountability

I have learned to shy away from expressions like “whatever it takes.” When it is dropped into a drama at just the right place and is said in just the right way by just the right person, it sounds pretty good. But right place or wrong, good person or bad, it means what it means.

So what does it mean?

“It” is the accomplishment of the goal at hand. It is easier to feel good about the expression if the goal is a good one, but even if it is a good one, the achievement of a goal will have consequences we cannot foresee.

“Whatever” is intended to accept whatever tactics are required and, as there are bad goals, so there are bad means.


I want to think about transparency today. I want to think of it as an alternative to trust. The people I am most likely to get in trouble with are people who hear me saying that trust is good and transparency is bad. I am not saying that. I am saying that trust is always better when it is justified; transparency is Plan B.

Let me start with marital fidelity. A man trusts his wife to be “faithful to him.” [1] It’s a cheap kind of trust; it presumes her fidelity. His trust is not a conclusion; it is not an intention. It is a presupposition. Then he hears some gossip that his wife has begun to entertain hopes of a relationship with someone else. Because he trusts her, he dismisses the gossip; he refuses to entertain it. [2] Finally, there are not only persistent rumors, but also anomalies in her behavior and these anomalies are consistent with her having an affair.

At that point, he decides that he want to be sure of his wife’s fidelity so he hires a private detective to follow her around and survey her electronic communications. The detective not only finds no reason to doubt the wife’s fidelity, but he also comes up with harmless reasons for the behavioral anomalies. Happy ending, right?

I look at it as the collapse of trust. To continue to trust his wife’s choices and her relationship to him would be a very expensive trust—not at all like the cheap trust he took for granted at the beginning. But now he will always know that he can be assured of his wife’s “fidelity” because he has the reports of the detective to rely on. He no longer trusts her; now he trusts the reports. It is to get to this stark alternative that I skipped over any conversation they might otherwise have had.

In this example, “transparency” is achieved by the surveillance of the detective. There is really no need for a detective. The wife could always have chosen to provide documentary evidence—written, auditory, visual—of where she had been and what she had been doing. You could say that her life is “transparent” to her husband if she did all that, but you might wonder why they are together at all, if such measures are required for him to be confident of their exclusive relationship.

So…is transparency a good thing? Only if it is necessary. [3] Trust is better. It is often argued that transparency is part of a good governance process. It is not a hard point to make in the abstract, but as soon as you begin to apply it to particular circumstances, it gets slippery. What if I need to trust your intentions? Can anything make your intentions transparent to me? It is hard to see how.

Would “accountability” be better?

Not really. It doesn’t take much looking at the word to see the “ability” suffix. If you are able to give an account—you could, should the occasion arise—give an account of your actions. The account you would give would, presumably, answer any questions there were about those actions—or intentions or attitudes or whatever.

Giving those accounts, on the other hand, when there is no need or, many times, no interest, in them, has no value at all. “Accounting” is the name of a necessary and valued profession, so I can’t really use the word here the way I would otherwise, but if it were not, it would be easy to call the giving of accounts no one wants to hear, “accounting.” That would nicely distinguish accounting from accountability. Accountability would mean the ability to give an account of your actions should one be required; accounting would mean the routine giving of accounts whether there was any interest or any need or not.

This strikes me as a sensible distinction, were the words available to make it; everyone would agree that accountability is a good thing but the routine giving of pointless accounts is not. But look what happens when “accountability” is made into a good thing by itself. “The giving of accounts” becomes the right thing to do. The difficulties emerge almost immediately. Once it is detached from an interest in the matter about which an account might be given, there is no way to specify how just how much accountability is good. It is easy to back into the position that because if accountability is good, the more giving of accounts there is, the better for all.

Where does that leave us?

In my mind, transparency and accountability are medicines. The provision for transparency—the ability of relevant members to see the workings of the operation in question—is an unquestioned good. When transparency means that people who have a right to know and who are interest can see the actions they need to know about, I am all for it. Similarly, when accountability means that a person with a public trust can give a satisfying account of their actions when asked, I am all for it.

But without those specifications, “transparency” and “accountability” are no more virtuous than “turning left” or “sitting quietly” or “drinking water.” Those are all things it would be nice to be able to do when the time is right, but they, like transparency and accountability, are not good in themselves.

I think I remember a line that was attributed to William F. Buckley Jr. As I remember it, he commented on the effect of Nixon’s impeachment because of Watergate by saying, “There will be a drawing of morals ’til healthy stomachs retch.” It sounds like Buckley and if you add in all the “-gates” that have followed in its wake, I might agree with him, rather than just relishing the cadence and the vocabulary.

It does capture how I feel about accountability and transparency. Because the actual exercise of these ideas—rather than their simple availability—requires a good reason, they need to be there. They need to be available. They don’t need to be provided any more than I need to have the plumber show up every week to show me that the plumbing in my house is still working properly.

[1] I’ve written a fair amount over the years on what “fidelity” might mean, but here, let’s just say it means not having sex with anyone you are not married to.
[2] I am skipping over any conversation the two of them might have had about it. That would be perfectly appropriate in some circumstances, but I don’t need it here.
[3] On the other hand, see the study by the Mather Institute available on NaCCRA website: “Respondents were asked what they thought were the advantages and disadvantages of providing greater transparency. The most frequent answer was a greater sense of trust in management (91%), followed by an enhanced relationship between management and residents (88%), and increased resident satisfaction (83%)’

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Transparency and Accountability

  1. Michael Hale says:

    I agree with you about trust. With trust, you don’t need accountability nor transparency because, IMHO, those can be forged. (Just ask Enron about the accountability part!) If accountability and transparency are meant to be provided by absolute third-party verifiability, then we’re pretty much into an Inquisition, which would lead to a complete loss of trust between the parties.

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