The downsides of transparency

Once again, the readers of this blog have provided critical insights and resources for my learning. Thank you. Specifically, a comment on the Decoding the Future (1 of 3) post pointed me to this AidfInfo Wiki - a resource for open sharing of data on development aid. Thanks.

And I want to encourage everyone to read Larry Lessig's article in the October 21, 2009 issue of The New Republic. Lessig, a parent of the Creative Commons movement, a guru on technology and creativity and change, and a member of the advisory board to The Sunlight Foundation reaches off the newstand and grabs you as you walk by with just the title of his piece, "Against Transparency." The piece stirred up some important issues - and has led to a wonderful debate (which you should check out after you read his article) online at The New Republic.

Now, Lessig's piece does an incredible job of marrying his first professional passion, technology change and creativity, to his second professional commitment, campaign finance reform. In arranging these nuptuals, Lessig points out what he sees as techno-deterministic blinders worn by transparency advocates (and this is where his respondents come back in the debate). Since my interest is in transparency, data, and philanthropy I'm going to step away from the campaign finance part of Lessig's article and extrapolate to money and data.

Several of the points that Lessig makes really matter from my point of view:

  • Policy solutions or industry responses to technology that think we can go back in time are doomed to fail. As he points out, in about a decade the majority of Americans alive will not remember the "good old days" of the 20th century, before file sharing; instant, replicable digital copying, open data access, and absolutely whiz-bang data-driven info graphics as a distinguishing value of a news source.
  • Technology doesn't determine our future. Our institutions and norms and practices and applications and laws determine technology and then they all mush together (my term, not his), each advance offering a platform for more change.
  • Technology changes far faster than laws (see also Sascha Meinrath at New America Foundation and the Open Technology Initiative) on this point.
  • This last point is important to Lessig's argument because his solution to the dangers of transparency as he sees them is not to try to fix transparency laws or technology, but to address the role of money and politics, as it is at the root of our normative assumptions between money and politics. His article is about changing how we finance politics, not how we make data available or use technology.
So what does all that have to do with philanthropy? As a champion of efforts to share information and data more widely within philanthropy, I need to step back - as Lessig's article forces its readers to do - and ask, what are the downsides of transparency? Which of these are due to technology or existing legal frameworks, and which of them come from elsewhere, from our norms and assumptions about how giving works or what philanthropy is for? And what scenarios can we imagine from greater data sharing that we'd prefer to avoid?
Here is one small example. I was in a recent conversation about disclosure requirements on private foundations. We were discussing the fact that most of what is required has to do with financial accountability, and how that drives what we know (and don't know) about philanthropy. Someone posited the idea of expanding the disclosure requirements to cover more programmatic issues or actual accomplishments. And then it occured to us - one logical effect of increasing disclosure requirements on private foundations would be to drive more donors to use advised funds, where the disclosure requirements don't (and probably wouldn't) apply. That would be a predictable end-around - and wouldn't aid the cause of learning more from philanthropy.
That story covers the imagined unintended consequence of a regulatory change. What are the imagined unintended results of using technology to shed more light on what foundations do and on the data they have and could share? Given our normative association between money and influence (back to Lessig's article) will more transparency into data lead foundations or donors to take fewer risks? Or might they respond by demanding even more paperwork and making hoops even higher and smaller for applicants?

Those are a few, small "what ifs?" What really matters here is this: Can we collectively identify what the normative assumptions are about philanthropy and its roles in society, and then identify what the interaction of technology-enabled transparency and those assumptions might be? We can't go back to a pre-techno-transparent age. And we'd be fools to expect a solely positive, linear interaction between the new visibility that it provides and our existing philanthropic institutions and behaviors. So instead, if we assume "backlash" and unintended consequences, perhaps we can surface our assumptions about roles of public and private resources, money, power, public, private, leadership, and social change in such a way that we really do change the game.

I'd welcome your thoughts on Lessig's article and the conversation that it sparked over at The New Republic. Transparency is here to stay - how do we make sure it yields the good we want from it?


4 comments:

LumenArc said...

read up on this subject a while back but nonetheless good post.

Liz Wainger said...

Transparency is as much a state of mind as it is a set of practices. It is a human behavior and it is hard to legislate and regulate human behavior. Technology gives us more tools to share but there has to be a commitment and comfort level in sharing and a value system that encourages and supports transparency. Yes foundations should be more transparent. But what are the incentives to do so? How can we create a philanthropic culture that encourages this behavior?

Janet Camarena said...

Lucy, another thought-provoking post! While one can frame any great virtue in terms of the downsides, the promise of a more informed and effective philanthropy through greater transparency and accountability should not get lost in this exercise. Perhaps framing this as "for" or "against" transparecy is the wrong frame to use. As you say, no one is going to put online technology back in its genie bottle. A little more than ten years ago, foundation transparency meant that people could access a 990-pf form. Today, with many of the largest foundations having robust web sites, searchable databases of their recent grants, and in some cases, public disclosure of a variety of their operating practices it seems that being for or against transparency is fast becoming a moot point. Perhaps a better frame would be around managing transparency or showcasing effective transparency practices that are in place at existing private foundations. This is exactly what we intend to do with the Foundation Center's forthcoming Glasspockets web site, which will include key facts about the field of institutional philanthropy, online public reporting information, case studies of effective transparency practices, and a "Who Has Glasspockets" feature showcasing the online tranparency practices of the largest foundations. We hope this will showcase best practices already in place, and inspire foundations to even greater transparency.

Janet Camarena said...

Lucy, another thought-provoking post! While one can frame any great virtue in terms of the downsides, the promise of a more informed and effective philanthropy through greater transparency and accountability should not get lost in this exercise. Perhaps framing this as for or against transparecy is the wrong frame to use. As you say, no one is going to put online technology back in its genie bottle. A little more than ten years ago, foundation transparency meant that people could access a 990-pf form. Today, with most of the largest foundations having robust web sites, searchable databases of their recent grants, and in some cases, public disclosure of a variety of their operating practices it seems that being for or against transparency is fast becoming a moot point. Perhaps a better frame would be around managing transparency or showcasing effective transparency practices that are in place at existing private foundations. This is exactly what we intend to do with the Foundation Center's forthcoming Glasspockets web site, which will include key facts about the field of institutional philanthropy, online public reporting information, case studies of effective transparency practices, and a "Who Has Glasspockets" feature showcasing the online tranparency practices of the largest foundations. We hope this will showcase best practices already in place, and inspire foundations to even greater transparency.