THE BLOG
11/20/2012 06:33 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Against Transparency

I once lived in a literal glass house. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhas master, the courtyard unit in Lafayette Park, Detroit, was designated a national landmark. The development would be recognizable to any architecture buff: in addition to all that glazing, the units boasted black steel, beige brick, identical sans serif address lettering on every door, which could not be changed, etc. The very first thing my wife and I did when we moved in was install decent window treatments, as much for the benefit of our neighbors as ourselves. With its mid-century minimalist style, this home demanded discipline. We had to organize personal possessions to the standards of the design magazines that graced the coffee table, or else the place looked terrible. Having done it once, I would never again chose to reside in such a structure.

I think about that glass house whenever I hear someone demand "transparency." I very much doubt we want what we say we want. Everyone claims they want "transparency" in decision-making.

I've actually tried that. In my role, I have given out much more information than some of my most trusted advisors would prefer. It would ruin the exercise to expect credit for virtue, but I cannot help myself from offering some musings about how disclosure of data has played out.

The most significant problem is that most people don't want to be bothered most of the time. I am often at public meetings where people in charge deliberate over issues that affect persons who are not present.

The irony is the absent individuals have been invited. They just don't show up even if offered an opportunity to share their opinions.

On the occasions when someone does attend, they usually remark to me afterward how terribly bored they were during, for example, the budget discussion. They may not realize that the mundane aspects of the agenda are the real action.

I welcome them, but the casual drop by might not be enough to educate an observer. If they see only a single session, it's easy to misunderstand what has happened. Without the history of prior agreements that influence current choices or the context, even a smart person acting in good faith cannot help but misconstrue events. The same would be true if, for the first time and without having been given the rules of the game, they were watching a chess match.

I know that many members of a community come to feel disenfranchised, believing their actions are futile. They have a reason for their feelings. They are not inherently apathetic. They've just been oppressed by the system.

Actually, I too succumb to that sentiment despite my role. I had a wonderful conversation early in my tenure with a student who, after identifying herself as at the top of the class, told me she was upset that the institution was facing state budget cutbacks and labor negotiations. She explained how she didn't want to be someplace with issues of that nature, because it detracted from her educational experience.

I don't disagree. I couldn't say this to her, but I also would rather be more involved with the substance of academics instead of addressing such challenges of management.

Yet these are the issues of our era. They are complex if not dramatic. They force us to make choices among competing values.

The problem with the fetish of transparency is that it inherently emphasizes appearances. We create procedures that offer only the illusion of involvement.

By itself, transparency offers no guide to decision-making. The very presence of observers no doubt alters the result. I wonder if it is uniformly for the better. There is too much temptation to appeal to the crowd.

What democracy depends on, more than transparency, is participation. It's easier to provoke people to assert their rights to self-governance than it is to persuade them to assume their responsibilities for the day-to-day work it requires.

Perhaps we should urge those who would lead to do better than transparency. We should design processes that are inclusive, remain as open as possible about outcomes, rely on facts, communicate candidly, and, above all, recognize how we are accountable -- as we should be.

Even Mies did not follow his dictate of "less is more." His buildings were not free of extraneous fashion. His mullions were simply adornments that displayed a different style.

I learned that the cliche about people living in glass houses (shouldn't throw stones) misses the point. People shouldn't live in glass houses in the first place. Part of the purpose of a personal home is having a private space in which to dance naked.