Definition of transparency

John Hall

TINZ Director

Civics & Human Rights

Transparency is a complex and nuanced word.

For someone making a career out of contesting the meaning of words, I have only belatedly and recently arrived at a definition of 'transparency' that I am comfortable with. For those in society who are not paid to and do not enjoy playing with the complexities of vocabulary, what is transparency?

Transparency International (TI) defines transparency as “shedding light on shady deals, weak enforcement of rules and other illicit practices that undermine good governments, ethical businesses and society at large”. So, for TI, 'transparency' is an active word, even a verb. Corruption, meanwhile, is defined as “abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” That is a little easier to understand.

Part of the reason why we struggle to understand transparency is that there are so many things we want to associate with it. Honesty, democracy, justice, culture, leadership, trust, the rule of law, even sustainability. Is there really a common thread between these disparate concepts? Or are we attempting to conflate all our modern concepts of virtue into one word?

As far as I'm concerned, we can get to a better place by simply turning that definition on its head. Transparency definitely includes the use of public power for public good. It also has an element of public figures being worthy of public trust. Others have identified the importance of collaboration, honesty and reasonableness.

Therefore, I suggest that Transparency is when society can trust leaders to use power for social good.

One of the key words in this definition is “trust”. Trust already occurs in TI's definition of corruption where the abuse of trust that is being highlighted. The motivation is private gain and the means is power.

Trust is defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. As used here, trust is earned - not blind but active, and maintained through open and honest behaviours. Organisations such as Transparency International help monitor trust.

Power has a unique relationship with language and words. As much as knowledge is power, the ability to use power is related to fluency in its vocabulary and grammar. But language not only acts as a means of common understanding but also distinguishes those who do not understand, from those who do.

I don’t think we should stop thinking about the different parts of transparency. But we should be able to express it all in simple words.

The definition again: Transparency is when society can trust leaders to use power for social good.

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