Transparency


We have heard a lot about transparency for government and public companies. What does it mean? First of all, there are many things that should not be transparent. Our privacy should not be transparent unless we volunteer to a doctor or a friend. How an individual leads his/her life is nobody else’s business unless breaking the law or causing harm to other people.

For government and non-profit organizations, transparency means that they have to open for public scrutiny. Why? The simple reason is that they claim they are doing something for the public good. If so, they must justify their claims. The same is true for a company issuing stocks because they claim they look after investors’ interest. So transparency is a responsibility and accountability issue. A responsible organization always tries to explain its actions, especially those hard for the public to understand.

How much an organization opens to the public depends on the issues involved. For example, security precautions, business plans, and new technologies should be kept private as warranted, but not used as an excuse to cover up everything else. We have seen many organizations do things behind closed doors or cover up dubious deeds using security or privacy as an excuse. We have also seen governments commit all sorts of atrocities using stability and public good as an excuse.

Although privacy is treasured, people in high-profile jobs should be willing to sacrifice some privacy. Why? Their jobs require them to be more transparent than a small regular employee, for their actions have public impacts. The public is giving them the trust to do a good job. They have become celebrities due to their positions. The loss of some privacy is the price they have to pay for occupying a high position. It goes with the territory, so to speak. They should not be in high positions if they complain about losing some privacy.

Transparency can be achieved in various forms. Posting information on the Internet for the world to see is one clear example. Different organizations handle transparency in their own styles. The goal is to achieve as far as possible, instead of trying to avoid or cover up.

Many organizations fail to understand that transparency makes them stronger rather than weaker. By being more transparent, an organization earns more understanding, respect and trust from the public. What are the consequences? Their products sell better. People like them more than the competition. They are able to recruit more talents because people like to work for them. It’s better than spending millions on superficial advertising. In fact, transparency helps them build a better brand name.

Let me give you some examples of transparency as reported by the San Jose Mercury News dated 3/21/11:

For many years, the Bay Area Transit System in San Francisco has been tracking the locations of its trains and buses via onboard GPS. Besides the data is used for internal purposes, they post the data on the Internet in real time. Some people take the data further by writing a software application called Routesy that can be installed on a cell phone. Now you can easily find out how late is your bus at the station where you’re waiting. It brings convenience to the public and profits to the businessmen while costing the government almost nothing.

Another example involves weather data gathered and posted by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Many private companies such as the Weather Channel and local news on radio and TV use the raw data and transform it into something useful like weather forecasts for the public.

The US Department of Transportation is considering a new rule requiring airlines to publish all fares online including ticket prices, baggage fees, food and beverages. This enhances competition among the airlines for the benefit of the consumers.

On the website, data.gov, published by the US government, you can find a lot of data hitherto inaccessible. This is a project of the Open Government Initiative pursued by the Obama Administration.

(March 2011)

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