Why Transparency? 13 Risks, 27 Rewards and 5 questions.

I facilitated an unplanned session at Transparency camp a couple weekends ago. In a surge of enthusiasm I had put my card up on the board. 5 minutes before the talk was to begin, there were 2 people in the room and one left. But somehow the room was PACKED when we began what became a remarkably interesting discussion.

In the room were students, Sunlight Foundation founders and staffers, Government employees, non-profit workers, and several other citizens who cared.

The session was intended to explore this question – What is the purpose of transparency? What do we have to gain? What is the value proposition?

So we started talking. People agreed, disagreed, had different ideas, and we came up with a list of about 27 potential rewards, and 13 potential risks of transparency.

The question I posed to the room at the end of the session, and the question I pose to you now is this:

If we want to steer toward certain of these benefits and away toward certain risks,  does that change our approach? Or do we do everything we can to throw it all open with faith in the notion that good things will happen when an open foundation is laid?

I think this is a legitamate question for debate, and one I’m not decided on myself (i’m particularly adept at arguing both sides of most issues).

So here it is a couple weeks late, the transcribed whiteboard from our session. (if you want to see the board itself, look here).


  • Why should we care?
  • Is transparency an End or Means?
  • What is the question that Transparency answers?


  • Unintended negative consequences (we don’t know what we don’t know)
  • Loss of context for data
  • Safety concerns
  • Loss of control
  • Second guessing
  • Efficacy of and compliance with policy
  • Time and Opportunity costs
  • Narrow vs. Broad Interests
  • Security Concerns
  • Showing vulnerabilities to enemies
  • Priority management
  • Complexity
  • Informing our enemies


  • Efficiency
  • Credibility
  • Insight
  • Competitive achievement
  • Marketplace of ideas
  • Innovation
  • Reform
  • Buy-in
  • Participation
  • Understanding
  • Integrity and accuracy of info
  • Accountability
  • Equal Acess
  • Reinforcement
  • Safety (food manufacturing problems)
  • Anxiety Amelioration (people know what’s happening)
  • Knowledge of Who is responsible.
  • Equity and Fairness in representation
  • Opt-in customization
  • Government becomes source of info to support my needs
  • Education
  • Public Engagement
  • 17K Government workers gain the benefit of 300MM citizens
  • Enrichment of Public Information
  • Agency Identity
  • Regulatory improvements
  • Dialog


  1. What a great discussion – wish I could have joined! This applies broader than gov’t, would be great to have a similar roundtable within a corp env with open participation from all levels.


    1. Transparency exposes truth, and truth eventually wins out. But is there ever really true transparency? Meaning how much to we trust that what is shared is the “whole truth”…

    2. I think fear is likely a big influencer in the negatives. The reasonable negatives should be easily handled via how you manage the process. The fear I am referring to is rooted by either one’s own personality (i.e. lack of self confidence, fear of failure, etc) or organizationally (i.e. mgt structure has demonstrated that they have no confidence in someone, punitive threats if something goes too wrong, etc). Of course there must still be rules to govern information & process – and expectation must be high that rules will be enforced including consequences.

    3. Challenge for the complex issues is tendency to provide feedback with limited knowledge. At the same time this could be a positive – as those new to an idea/discussion are not saddled with the traditional reasons why something cannot be done.

    4. I am thinking the right approach initially might be “throw it all open with faith in the notion that good things will happen when an open foundation is laid” – and being a conservative this seems more of a free-market approach. I think one challenge folks have with free-markets is the reality there are winners and losers (reality is this exists in all models) and similarly in this approach there will be some winners and unintended losers since the process is not trying to be over managed. Will be interesting to hear other comments, because this approach tends to go against the concepts of regulation.

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