Transparency : undermining or improving democracy ?

By Stefan Schepers

Some non-governmental organisations, for example Corporate Observatory Europe, and some MEPs, are making a habit of calling for ever more transparency in European policy-making. Is this a useful contribution to democracy, or is it part of today’s wave of populism?

Transparency is an essential characteristic of open societies and effective governance: it is the basis for cognitive input from and dialogue with stakeholders, which in turn helps to bring alignment of vision, inclusiveness and coherence in public policies and in resulting regulations and capital allocation. It is also needed to evaluate and supervise the actions and non-actions of those elected and paid to govern. The traditional system of representative democracy assumed that stakeholders’ views and interests were represented in parliament. Today, this is no longer sufficient to ensure effective and democratic governance.

Transparency demands result from the tensions between democratic and technocratic governance which have always existed; today they are rising fast, not least because many citizens feel, often rightly, that their interests are being insufficiently taken into account. The aftershocks of the financial crisis are still continuing, worsened by the poorly-managed consequences of globalisation. A different organisation of democratic processes is required therefore, with more dialogue processes, in line with the connectivity in an economy and society that is radically changing due to digital technologies. Transparency is a tool for such dialogues; it is not an objective.

But transparency for the sake of transparency is pointless and can become an instrument for undermining the legitimacy of public institutions. In the debates in Brussels or Strasbourg about transparency in the EU, the focus is on pusillanimous regulation. Who has met whom and when, how much has been spent on advocacy – as if all this has any relevance.

The key issue is the potential contribution to Europe’s economic and social well-being of the objectives pursued by a particular actor in the democratic debate. This requires attention to evidence and to ethics, not to tabloid-style information. Unfortunately, the way in which many transparency demands are presented shows less concern with better policy-making and suggests a more perfidious goal: to undermine trust in EU institutions and discredit other participants in policy debates. An indication of this is the selectivity of transparency demands and the focus on issues with high populist appeal: policy issues in the agri-food sector receive a lot of attention, but not in the financial sector, which poses far higher risks for societies’ welfare. Despite the claim to be market critical, many non-governmental organisations in practice follow a market logic themselves: issues which allow them to expand their income and clientele receive preferential attention.

An important concern is that one seldom hears the word ‘ethics’. It is perfectly possible to respect bureaucratic transparency rules and pursue socially irresponsible objectives which could do great damage to the economic and social fabric, in Europe or elsewhere. Seeking to undermine intellectual property rights for example, at a time when a shift towards a more sustainable economic model demands a massive research and innovation effort, could cause grave long term damage to our global competitiveness on which our social model depends. Another example: ignoring the collateral effects of European policies in other parts of the globe, causing distress and migration pressures there.

Ethics is more important than regulation. There is enough inspiration to look for, such as Max Weber, with his distinction between the ethics of responsibility (‘Verantwortungsethik’) and the ethics of persuasion (‘Gesinnungsethik’); Raymond Aron and the idea of the ethics of precaution; John Rawls, and his concept of ‘a veil of ignorance’ about alternatives and consequences; or more recently Michael Sandel, who starts from the fact the no-one is unencumbered in the views and positions taken and that pure rationality is impossible in the social realm, not by officials, but also not by civil society representatives or parliamentarians. Less high-mindedness would therefore be a first step towards more reasonable approaches.

The other issue is evidence. Today’s democracy is challenged to design new methods for dialogue and alignment between a variety of interests, to balance rational facts and valid social-cultural views. The traditional parliamentary system is no longer sufficient. Policy-makers have a societal responsibility, therefore they must consider all the facts and potential impacts of their decisions on society at large. Failing to take into account all knowledgeable impacts would be irresponsible. Therefore multiple views and interests need to be balanced and the potential impacts of policy and regulation need to be carefully examined to achieve the best possible results and to cause the least collateral damage. Moreover, they need to be agile, to respond quickly to unintended consequences, or to contextual change. Basing policy on the most solid evidence possible is in fact an ethical obligation. But evidence can only be comprehensive if consultation processes become real dialogues with cognitive stakeholders. This is the purpose of transparency: to improve policy-making at a time of increasing complexity and volatility.

Democratic governance is deemed superior, because in theory it allows public decision-makers to take into account all rational ideas and interests before making a rule. In reality, today’s technocratic governance systems, such as the EU, tend to focus on aggregate benefits, to side-line impacts on specific groups and undervalue collateral policies. This lack of policy coherence is a big source of discontent and distrust among citizens. There are many reasons for this, but one surely is that EU policy-makers too are not unencumbered in their own views.

A rethink is required. Information (facts and figures), knowledge (their analytical understanding) and real life experiences are not identical, but they are all needed to improve the quality of public policy-making. Transparency about these inputs before and during a policy or rule-making process is necessary for the quality of European decisions; it is equally necessary during their implementation to evaluate effectiveness and make timely modifications.

Sharing evidence-based knowledge and real life experiences makes a lot of sense if done amongst knowledgeable stakeholders accountable for the Common Good. It requires having the proper cognitive frameworks to understand all the known multi-dimensional and interactive aspects of complex issues. Only then can desirable outcomes be achieved and negative collateral effects avoided. It helps to align visions and get maximum public value out of the intended action, public or private. Transparency needs to happen at the right time and in the right measure during a decision-making process.

Providing transparency can only be based on trust among all knowledge and experience owners. It helps to design realistic, flexible and inclusive solutions which allow adjustment processes with a minimum of disruption and a maximum of benefit for the Common Good. But trust will not emerge when large amounts of information are thrown around, without the contextual meaning of the multiple facts which together make up evidence about a given issue.

Not only policy-makers but also those trying to influence them should take into account ethics and evidence. Spreading false or incomplete facts, scientific information which is not peer-reviewed, or promoting a tunnel vision is unethical and should be exposed as such. Many Brussels-based non-governmental organisations are using tactics out of the populist political handbooks to discredit systematically Europe’s political and economic actors. When the European Parliament made a report about the transparency of these non-governmental organisations, this was immediately decried. Transparency is for others. The fact that many of these organisations are in fact undemocratic, corporatist structures with shady legal bases, or none at all, allows for operational methods which law-abiding people would shy away from.

These kinds of transparency demands will only produce negative effects: declining trust among stakeholders, elected politicians and officials, and exploitation of information by non-stakeholders who push themselves into reasonable debate like a drunk at a family reunion.

Politicians should show enough courage to give the EU the right forms of transparency, at the right time, and among relevant stakeholders that can make a real contribution to the Common Good. They should find innovative ways of collaborative governance, adapted to today’s needs. They must bring ethics and evidence to the forefront of the discussion, rather than largely senseless regulation and bureaucracy.


Stefan Schepers