We Can See Right Through Them: Transparency and How to Use It

by Futurist Kit Worzel

In 2014, Canada ranked #10 in lack of corruption worldwide, the UK ranked #14, and the US ranked #17. In comparison, Denmark scored as the least corrupt country in the world, India was in the middle of the pack at #85, and North Korea and Somalia tied for last, at #174, and are considered the most corrupt nations in the world. There is direct correlation with the level of openness and transparency in government and lack of corruption in any given nation, leading to the thought that lack of transparency leads to corruption.

These measures come from Transparency International, a non-profit organization that collects data from numerous sources, including World Bank, Reporters Without Borders, World Economic Forum, the Tax Justice Network, and their own research. They are not the only international group that researches corruption across all sectors, but they are one of the largest and most trusted (one would hope. The irony would be painful otherwise).

When it comes to corrupt and closed nations, certain characteristics stand out. We hear about the Great Firewall of China, and how Google refused to continue filtering their search results there as they consider China to be a totalitarian state, a fact that is largely true. North Korea has the most restrictive and corrupt government in the world, and the press is entirely controlled by government propaganda. In Somalia, where the World Bank has essentially said the law has entirely failed and there is zero control over corruption, the press is somewhat less restricted than in China, but reporters still get arrested or killed with distressing regularity. These nations have very low levels of transparency, and the citizens have very little say in governing, which encourages closed and corrupt regimes. So transparency is not the same as corruption – but lack of transparency is clearly a hallmark of corrupt governance.

By comparison, Denmark, which I mentioned earlier as the least corrupt nation in the world, holds that top spot for a number of reasons. They are part of the Open Government Partnership, an international platform dedicated to make government open, accountable and responsible. They have an enforced code of conduct for public servants, and a legal system that not only criminalizes various forms of corruption, but an independent judicial system to enforce it. Not coincidentally, they are rated as one of the happiest countries in the world (#1 in 2013 and 2014, slipping to #6 in 2015, according to the UN World Happiness report).

Coming in 17th, the US has a comparatively low level of corruption. A free press, combined with nearly omni-present civilian recording and online reporting of official actions, make corruption more difficult to hide. And when people are caught stealing or in wrong-doing, they are usually punished for it. There are laws in place to protect people against false seizure of assets by governments or even against large corporations. So while many Americans complain about government corruption, the US is significantly better off than most of the world.

The Shock of Transparency

Yet, even those regimes that deem themselves honest and open are experiencing a form of future shock, as information they consider secret (or embarrassing) is increasingly finding its way onto the public view. And it’s not just governments that are vulnerable to this trend towards transparency. Most major corporations dislike transparency since it tends to tarnish their image when their dirty deals or deeds get out. Examples might be Nestle taking water from drought-ridden California, or similar behavior by Coca-cola in India, as just two examples, both of which have started boycotts over their products. As this affects their bottom lines, such companies strive to keep their actions secret, and prevent outsiders from finding and airing their dirty laundry. Like their government counterparts, they’re increasingly going to be disappointed as transparency continues to spread.

Conversely, companies who are open in their dealings are typically seen as being more trustworthy. Elon Musk’s Tesla open-sourced their patents for their electric cars. SEOmoz, where former CEO Rand Fishkin not only posted his own performance reviews, but also released their funding process, complete with an accurate and reasonably complete financial breakdown of the company and their profit design. Such companies believe that transparency generates more business by increasing trust. Transparency pays, and those who drag their feet on it can suffer.

As new stories of corruption and backroom deals emerge from media – or increasingly from bloggers – people are taking individual action against it. Nick Rubin, a US teen, created a browser plugin called Greenhouse, which recognizes the names of members of Congress and shows where their funding comes from. He uses the data from OpenSecrets.org, the website for the Center for Responsive Politics, a group dedicated to tracing the money in US politics. In India, the website I Paid a Bribe asks people to report where officials solicited a bribe, and for how much, showing the corruption in various parts of the country, and creating a starting point for preventing it in the future. In Kenya and Uganda, the site Not in my Country tracks solicitation of bribes of different types at Universities, and helps guide users through the legal process if they wish to take action. These are but a small sample of websites and utilities designed to expose and end corruption, many of them grassroots, and there are a few official government sites as well. Combine this with ease of access to information, and this is putting a large magnifying lens over any public official, or anyone in the public eye. But transparency and public display are, in themselves, not enough.

The Past Is Gone…the Future Can’t Hide

JFK and FDR were able to get elected in part by hiding serious health issues (Addison’s disease for Kennedy, and Polio, or possibly Guillian-Barré syndrome, for Roosevelt), something that would be impossible today. Now there’s too much media, and too many eyes watching, which would make it impossible to conceal something like that, and attempting too do so unsuccessfully would be seen as an even greater sin by the voters. One of the reasons that John McCain didn’t win in 2008 was because of his known health issues, so that voters feared he would die half-way though his term. Anyone who tried to cover up a serious health issue today wouldn’t even make it to the ballot.

It’s not just health. Financials, one of the issues that hurt Mitt Romney, can leave politicians exposed, as well as the contents of donor lists, voting records and all sorts of data that’s becoming available. Yet the raw data isn’t that useful for most people. It’s the application of it that we are interested in.

We are likely to see an outgrowth of the current technologies like Greenhouse and the corruption websites, and have them tied into social media. Rather than wonder if the real estate agent who is serving you is giving you a fake contract, you’ll be able to take a picture with your phone and know all about their reliability and honest right off. Politicians won’t be able to hide skeletons in the closet any more, they’ll have their failings and broken promises displayed alongside their pictures on your computer or TV screen. We are rapidly approaching a post-secrecy world, where dirty laundry is almost impossible to hide, for politicians, corporate CEOs – or private citizens like you and me.

The Downside of Transparency

Greater openness also means that governments may use this declining secrecy as a weapon to control people, tap their phonesscan their e-mail, even access confidential medical records. This is already happening, as you can see from my links, and greater openness, voluntary or otherwise, will also give people who have an axe to grind more material with which to work.

All governments want to monitor all the data they can on their citizens, even if it is for benign reasons, and the unprecedented level of access, particularly with the proliferation of social media, is a goldmine for anyone who is so interested. It will pay to remember the old political saying that just because you’re not interested in your government doesn’t mean that your government isn’t interested in you.

Seeing Is Not Enough

As recent events demonstrate, we’re finding that even a hint of government cover-up can create a major public uproar. Julian Assange (Wikileaks) and Edward Snowden (release of NSA spying documents) are examples of this in the US. In Canada, Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terrorism bill, has been shown to be a gag bill which would empower the government to silence groups they felt were saying uncomplimentary things. Government prosecution (or persecution, depending on your point of view) Assange and Snowden is wildly unpopular, and the passage of C-51 through the Canadian House of Parliament has been met with wide-spread outrage, but this hasn’t stopped either the desire to prosecute the two whistleblowers, or the passage of the bill. Knowing about something may not be enough to stop it.

Bills that go to Congress frequently have deliberately confusing language, making them difficult for laypeople to understand, and this language is used to hide raises for Congress, changes to voting laws, tax breaks for major donors, and all sorts of sins that governments would rather the voters remained ignorant of. Complication is one way governments have of fighting transparency. And that calls for different kinds of counter-measures.

Beyond Transparency

Which brings me to my second point. We now live in an age where technology is making privacy almost obsolete. We have an unprecedented level of access to public officials, and they are frequently in the headlines for one scandal or another. However, all this exposure is not significantly lowering the level of corruption, which may means that transparency, while important, is not enough. Indeed, in a world where notoriety is often seen as a form of celebrity, many evil-doers will make hay out of coming clean. To keep those who lead and govern honest, we need something more: accountability; and that may be harder to achieve.

So when software can show you a politician’s voting record, that’s great. But it will be better still when that voting record is cross-referenced with their donor records, so you can see that they vote against solar panels when the oil industry gives them a hefty donation. And we are coming to a point when the news won’t just show that a bill sponsoring green energy will be voted on next week, but that the coal and oil industries have donated a total of $5 million to 238 members of congress, buying themselves a majority, and give the contact information for all those members of Congress, as well as that information for the coal and oil senior executives. And, of course, berating your member of Congress is now just the push of a button away.

So, all this information pushing towards greater transparency is largely beneficial, and since it’s already being used against us, there should really be no hesitation in using it for our defense. But without a way to create accountability, this information isn’t going to be as useful as it might – or as we need. Mark Sanford was almost impeached and was formally censured when he was Governor of South Carolina in 2011, but that didn’t stop him from winning the congressional seat for South Carolina’s first district in 2013. In 2010, Representative Charlie Rangel was found guilty of 11 violations by the House Ethics Committee, most involving money mis-management, but he kept his seat. This is just the tip of the iceberg. While we may be able to find out the dirty dealings of those in power, doing something about it will take more than a smartphone. It is not enough to create technology that enforces transparency, we must also find a way to create accountability. Corruption will continue to exist until we can combine transparency and accountability.

Is there an app for that – yet?