Seeing through the claim of transparency

There has been an interesting series of articles on Sky News looking at PMs, Parliament, how money is received and from who. If you haven’t seen it I would take a look as it is an interesting example of how data is being used and developed. There is an associated spreadsheet that will tell you the money your MP has received and who it came from.

This move is all about transparency and has been talked about as a major step forward. But what has become obvious is that the transparency is perhaps more opaque than it first appears. The information is just a figure and a name. Sky reporters tried to track back to identify the donations and the business they came from but was frustrated on many levels.

In crisis communication I talk a lot about the need for transparency but this has made me wonder whether as comms professionals and leaders we have lost sight of what it really means. In the case above the real transparency would be to say this figure came from this organisation for this specific reason. When I worked in the police the gifts and hospitalities register required a lot of information as well as the times the gift had been turned down.

I remember declaring a tin of biscuits that the local newspaper had sent at Christmas. Did anyone really want to know? I am not sure. But that was a level of transparency that would have given people all those elements of who, what, where, when and why. The approach would have been more ground breaking by Parliament and MPs then just a figure with no clarification.

What started as an exercise in transparency can quickly become an issue that needs to be managed. Many people will want to know more, and will have questions of their local MPs. What may be genuine relationships with a clear issue and approach could start to look more sinister. More information would have quickly identified those issues that were seen as questionable. It is important to remember that there is nothing illegal that has been identified in the figures according to Sky. The issues are more about ethical behaviour and morality.

This same problem of transparency is something that we may see with lots of documents that get produced on financial matters, diversity and equality, recruitment and retention. Are we playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists and critics by just failing to add some context?

It may be time for communication professionals to stand up and question the way information is published, what is not included, and to show what real transparency looks like.

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