On the relationship of transparency and trust in politics

By Chris­tine Hübner.

Be it finan­cial mar­kets, organ trans­plants, or ener­gy mar­ket reg­u­la­tion – every­body is talk­ing about increas­ing trans­paren­cy these days. Claim­ing trans­paren­cy seems to have become the new fash­ion to go with. In a 2012 sur­vey, 61% of Ger­mans wished for pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion and the polit­i­cal sys­tem to be more open and lucid. Action groups in Ham­burg and Berlin even demand a whole leg­isla­tive ini­tia­tive around trans­paren­cy, mak­ing infor­ma­tion a lia­bil­i­ty – trans­paren­cy by law so to say. Sure­ly enough politi­cians do not want to miss out on this trend and ride along the trans­paren­cy wave. One after anoth­er is request­ing trans­paren­cy in the polit­i­cal are­na – mean­ing com­pre­hen­si­ble polit­i­cal process­es, trace­able polit­i­cal deci­sion mak­ing and bet­ter access to infor­ma­tion. And these requests do not only come from the typ­i­cal ‘have-it-all-online’ folks such as the Pirate Par­ty or the Occu­py move­ment. Many more ini­tia­tives such as Abge­ord­neten­watch or Open­Govern­ment car­ry the trans­paren­cy hype in pol­i­tics as well.

To start with some good news

The good news is: in con­trast to much oth­er hype before, the trans­paren­cy buzz seems to res­onate with politi­cians. It is dif­fi­cult nowa­days to find an MP who is not on Twit­ter (if even the pope is!) or work­ing on her own Face­book fan-page. The Social Media Activ­i­ty Index 2011, a report pre­sent­ed by the Insti­tute for Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Man­age­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of St. Gallen states that two thirds of Ger­man MPs present them­selves and their polit­i­cal work on the social web. For the lag­gards, Chan­cel­lor Merkel her­self is said to have oblig­ed her 620 MPs to par­tic­i­pate in a social media train­ing. More old-school invi­ta­tions for tra­di­tion­al two-way-com­mu­ni­ca­tion such as the year­ly Open Day of the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment and its min­istries also serve as evi­dence for the politi­cians’ will­ing­ness to open up their work to the pub­lic. Which is well received: the Open Day count­ed about 130.000 vis­i­tors this year who want­ed to learn all about the Chancellor’s work and that of her Cabinet.

Thus, it seems that cit­i­zens and politi­cians have an unam­bigu­ous under­stand­ing of trans­paren­cy in pol­i­tics: it is a fun­da­men­tal con­stituent of democ­ra­cy. Already in ancient Greece, demo­c­ra­t­ic think­ing, a freely formed polit­i­cal will, and well-ground­ed polit­i­cal deci­sion mak­ing were based on bal­anced infor­ma­tion. Access to impar­tial infor­ma­tion on polit­i­cal process­es enables cit­i­zens to judge politi­cians and their work, make requests for improve­ment, dis­cov­er deficits – and some­times even the mis­use of pow­er. This infor­ma­tion has to be claimed by cit­i­zens and pro­vid­ed by politi­cians to the same extent.

On the rela­tion­ship of absolute trans­paren­cy and trust

Upon a clos­er look, how­ev­er, it shows that lob­by­ists and politi­cians like­wise tweet far past cit­i­zens’ real infor­ma­tion needs. And this per­tains not only to polit­i­cal­ly irrel­e­vant mes­sages such as this one:

Mariechen ist abge­füt­tert, der Kaf­fee ist da, also kann’s los­ge­hen :-))” (“Mariechen is fed, cof­fee is here, so let’s go :-))” — Sig­mar Gabriel on Twit­ter, 27 July 2012).

The cur­rent debate around trans­paren­cy also show­cas­es the false hope we car­ry: that sim­ply hav­ing more infor­ma­tion will even­tu­al­ly restore our trust in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy; that increased trans­paren­cy of polit­i­cal process­es can give us back the feel­ing we cit­i­zens played a sub­stan­tial role in demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion mak­ing. These hopes, how­ev­er, can­not be achieved by mere dis­clo­sure of more infor­ma­tion. This is easy to real­ize when imag­in­ing what the pub­li­ca­tion of all avail­able infor­ma­tion would do to each sin­gle one of us: it would over­whelm us, because we would not be able to fil­ter any of the infor­ma­tion we receive. In the best case, this can come in incred­i­bly handy for bash­ful politi­cians, like it did last win­ter when Ex-pres­i­dent Wulff strug­gled with his per­son­al finances. The Wulff-affair illus­trates why sim­ply hav­ing more infor­ma­tion is not quite the same as know­ing more and mak­ing a bet­ter judgement.

Instead, in the worst case the dis­clo­sure of all avail­able infor­ma­tion can make cit­i­zens devel­op a com­pul­sion to con­trol – the irri­tat­ing feel­ing of being over­whelmed by your inabil­i­ty to judge and being cheat­ed on at the same time. This feels much dif­fer­ent from inter­ac­tion with politi­cians based on mutu­al trust. Philoso­pher and media researcher Byung-Chul Han even dares to state that the need for trans­paren­cy in mod­ern soci­ety is wrong in itself: 

“Trust means build­ing pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er, even though there are things you don’t know about each other.”

On the oppo­site, there is “no room for trust” in soci­eties where there is absolute trans­paren­cy, he claims.

Dif­fer­ent forms of trans­paren­cy as a source of trust

As always, the solu­tion to the whole trans­paren­cy dilem­ma is prob­a­bly some­where in between total translu­cence and over­ly opti­mistic trust in politi­cians. The aim has to be to com­bine the neces­si­ty of trans­par­ent polit­i­cal process­es with a digestible amount of infor­ma­tion for cit­i­zens. Yes, cit­i­zens need to demand more trans­paren­cy – but not of the uncon­di­tion­al, unfil­tered, infor­ma­tion-dump­ing kind. Much rather, cit­i­zens have to request for more com­pre­hen­si­ble, tan­gi­ble polit­i­cal infor­ma­tion, clos­er to their own real­i­ties. And politi­cians have to abide: speak­ing the lan­guage of your con­sumers is a les­son every busi­ness stu­dent learns in mar­ket­ing 101. Why not work with the (proven and test­ed) meth­ods of oth­ers for once? It may seem odd in the first instant that the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment spends tax mon­ey on a shiny adver­tis­ing cam­paign to pro­mote its strat­e­gy around demo­graph­ic change or to build an infor­ma­tive web­site on the state’s finances, but this kind of spend­ing con­tributes prob­a­bly much more to the com­pre­hen­sion and appre­ci­a­tion of polit­i­cal strate­gies than any tweet or Face­book mes­sage can do. Why? Because they put the cit­i­zens in the cen­ter of atten­tion and not the politi­cians themselves.

Trans­paren­cy will always remain a fun­da­men­tal con­stituent of democ­ra­cy. But it must be defined as sim­ple clar­i­ty, as tan­gi­bil­i­ty of infor­ma­tion for every­one. Cit­i­zens and politi­cians need to speak the same lan­guage – this calls for polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion just as well as for trans­paren­cy of infor­ma­tion. Much more impor­tant than just dump­ing all infor­ma­tion on the pub­lic is a con­struct of mutu­al trust with a cit­i­zen­ry that demands infor­ma­tion and politi­cians who are approach­able and act com­pre­hen­si­bly. Only in such a world, pol­i­tics can get to work as true two-way-communication.

Chris­tine Hüb­n­er is a part­ner at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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