The truth behind transparency

16 March 2017
Author: Sarah Johns

I often wonder if we expect too much from transparency. At a recent IATI conference, I hardly heard the "T" word mentioned – the buzz was all about IATI as a mechanism for information exchange. And when things go wrong in the development sector, often the call from funders and the press is for more transparency, more requirements to open up. 

But the UK development sector is one of the most transparent in the world – over 200 civil society organisations use the IATI data standard, and both government and funders demand the highest level of transparency in return for their money. Are we reaching “peak transparency”?

While there’s no doubt that transparency is important, there is academic and practical evidence to show that being more transparent doesn’t always lead to more trust. And surely that’s what we are really talking about when things go wrong. We talk about the decline in public trust in aid and development in the UK. We talk about the breakdown of trust between funder and NGO when things don’t go as expected. Trust is about relationship building, which is something that can create real change and that transparency can’t achieve on its own. And in the recognition that development is complex and needs us to work together and be adaptive and responsive, surely the impetus has to be on building trustworthy organisations rather than ramping up the transparency requirements. 

There has been some very clear thinking around trustworthy organisations in the business sector, which sets out the building blocks that organisations can proactively work on to achieve trustworthiness:

  • Ethical and honest leadership and management practices
  • Ethical culture and climate
  • Strategy and sub-strategies that reflect and support trustworthiness
  • Systems, policies and processes that promote trustworthy behaviour and constrain untrustworthy behaviour (this includes transparency)
  • The organisation’s response to regulation and legislation
  • The organisation’s public reputation 

These building blocks put organisations in the best position to be trusted by others, to get the space to innovate and to build resilience against times when we don’t quite get it right, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples in our sector where this is already taking place.

Working as we do with the most marginalised communities, many NGOs should be able to do this. So do you think this the right approach? How do we convince the sector and funders that its the investment in the building blocks of trustworthiness rather than just transparency that will make the difference in the long run, both to public perception of development and to our own work?

About the author

Sarah Johns
Bond

Sarah Johns is transparency adviser at Bond, covering the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), open data and transparency.