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Myth: Transparency is an all-embracing cure

Myth: Transparency is an all-embracing cure

Photographer:Fotograaf: Archive Abazi

Myth busters

“Let me emphasise,” says Vigjilenca Abazi, assistant professor of European law. “Transparency is an important precondition for a good democratic society, for being able to hold people and institutions accountable, for public debates and for the free press to do its work. But that doesn’t mean it’s the sole fixer for everything, as we seem to have come to believe in the past twenty years. It’s just one of the many components in good governance.”

Abazi mentions corruption as an example. Obligating government institutions and companies to disclose relevant financial information, seems like a good way to prevent it. “It makes it easier to find out, but it won’t magically solve it. Funds will still be misused and briberies will still be accepted. In order for that to stop, you need a change of administrative culture and put a whole set of other measurements in place.”

When, for instance, the municipality of Maastricht wishes to open up a public debate, simply being transparent won’t do either. “Publishing a lot of documents on your website does not automatically mean citizens will know more about an issue. These types of documents can be very technical. The average citizen doesn’t have the detailed knowledge to understand them, nor the time to figure everything out.”

Which leads Abazi to the question: What exactly is transparency? “It has become such an elastic term. For one, it may mean just access to documents, for another, it may also mean making them understandable. We need to be more critical about the term and have a debate about the concept: What do we mean by it and how can we be better at applying it?”

So, what does transparency mean to Abazi? “First of all, a clear public registration of all documents. Good archiving is important, as is following up on documents that couldn’t be disclosed at first, for strategic reasons for instance. That is sometimes understandable, but when the sensitive topic is closed, those should be made public. Second of all, the documents should be easily accessible, not just to academics and journalists, but also to the general public. They should be able to find and understand them.”

Abazi also feels that there should be an open dialogue with the audience. “And an institution should use all possible ways to make sure citizens are well-informed and participating: social media, platforms, live debates. They should also be open to the public’s opinion, and ask what they can do better.” Which brings her to communication in general. “How are the relations with the press? Are meetings, or at least their minutes, open to everyone? Do all journalists from all kinds of news outlets have access to them? The traditional media play a very important role in the process of making things understandable for a broad audience. They have to be fact-based, independent, and investigative, but also provide their readers with a broad set of issues. We, as academics, could also do more. We can share our research, for instance through open access publications. We have to keep the horizon open, not always look at what is already in the centre of attention, but turn the spotlight on new territories.”

Abazi admits that this view on transparency may be more idealistic than realistic. “But I do see institutions trying and improving. Take the European Union, for example. It’s often more transparent than people give them credit for, although there is certainly room for improvement.”

Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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