The value and implication of transparency

Throughout the country, nowadays, transparency must be the most popular word thanks to the case against the former Chief Justice. But, just because a word’s on everyone’s lips doesn’t necessarily mean the word’s “digested.” Take the words: “environment.” “people power.” “reconciliation.” These words, like ‘transparency,’ are meant as if ripe fruits ready for the plucking, just get a ladder and few baskets. I doubt if most Filipinos understand what transparency asks of them.

In a barrio in the Visayas, it was refreshing to see officials complying with their full disclosure policy. LGU records were posted outdoors, along the highway to be exact. Looking at the display, I thought, OK what will these add to how the LGU’s presently doing its job? and I realized that transparency or full disclosure has value only when the data and information disclosed are utilized.

In my line of work, research and evaluation, it is the common source for desperation that much of the results of commissioned studies are merely shelved and as jokes around this go when it’s used at all it’s to “swat a cockroach with.” For sure, years after these have been quite forgotten, the same old issues surface, in other forms likely, and it’s back to the cycle.

Citizens should, must, use the disclosed data and information. The masses, when they do find their voice, are derided (and how come, by the educated) for the largely emotional and unorganized content of their arguments. Perhaps the derision’s not without justification then. In the absence of facts and good analysis of these, well, there’s always the heart to argue your cause with.

Citizens, perusing, say, the Annual Investment Plans (AIPs) in the 3-5 year range would see the pattern of where money was spent. Comparing this with the development priorities within the same period, for example, they would see whether or not the trend fits the list of planned priorities. When mismatched, well, transparency is ultimately about being ready to be accountable. In the exercise, citizens may realize and ask how the development priorities were derived at, and do they remember participating in the process? Information utilization should lead to (or develop) critical thinking. And hopefully mobilize community discussion and action.

On the other hand, the communication of data and information is the key toward their utilization. One reason perhaps why the masses fail to utilize public data is because its presentation is ill suited to their communication behaviour. And we know the present and persistent state of things in the barrios, that around 20% (or 16M) are not literate and many more are not functionally literate. This implies for public officials to initiate and engage in communicating, not merely disclosing, the data and information. And that they must be well-versed in the use of the wide array of communication media and tools.

I had been employed in an organization whose main clientele are children. In its “child-friendly governance” programme, one of the goals is that children have a say in public decisions (to “vote” on issues affecting them). But, it acknowledges, before they can make intelligent choices, children must have information or seek the information. Not just any data or information, but the right data and information delivered at the right time using the right tools. This is easier said than done. Adults are challenged to provide quality information to children in such a way that children understand it as it should be. Incidentally, the children (in the organization’s programme areas) knew how to deliver their messages across to the adults, using media they’re comfortable with, theatre, for instance. Taking this cue from the children, adults should then start learning the use of “child-friendly” language, behaviour, and media if communication with children is to be realized.

And this is just concerning the children.

In city and town halls, varied data and information are publicly posted. Whenever I’m in one, it’s my habit to go over these (I often get left behind by my group because of this). It tells me a lot about the quality of governance in the place. It’s the “trick” of the research trade, seeing the patterns in the data, which citizens need to develop because stand-alone data don’t tell much. But, first, to do this eventually, citizens should be able to ask of themselves, “what’s in it (transparency) for me?”, “how can transparency actually lead to good governance?”, and “how can I contribute?”

Clearly, transparency is more than just pinning public records on public display walls. Disclosure of SALNs and other public records should lead to behavioural and attitudinal change (manifested as effective communication and citizen action, among others) that should ultimately lead to the desired change (good governance) itself. That’s transparency, hard at work. Transparency that has failed is largely of a citizenry who remains idle in the deluge of disclosed facts.

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