A lesson in the function of transparency: In Andrew Barry’s masterful new book Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline he goes to great lengths to consider how “transparency” is employed, in this case, the voluntary pursuit of transparency as a means to rationally improve the experience of oil companies as they pursue transnational oil pipelines (for Barry, it is the BTC).
The basic rationale is simple. Instead of dealing with complaints, usually about environmental concerns (i.e., endangered species, etc.) or issue of public interest (i.e., land rights, etc.), the firm could offset those concerns, thus, front-loading as a means of obviating them completely from the process if only they could be transparent enough and maximize front-end accountability. As he writes, his expectation, which was consistent with the expectations of oil company elites at BP, was that:
transparency might … foster informed and rational debate while limiting the scope and intensity of controversy (182)
The manifest function of transparency appears to be an outward attempt to improve the public appearance of accountability and to intentionally limit or reduce the controversy downstream. This seems fully logical: transparency is a means to reduce controversy; to rationalize a process to the point that it appears that everyone is consenting after the fact. Such a logic is, for nearly anybody under the thumb of transparency, assessment, and accountability measures and measurements, something to concern yourself with; that transparency of assessment suffocates the hard discussions rather than engaging or enlivening them.
However, transparency has a latent function too; a function that is cause for hope. Barry warns us:
while limiting the scope and intensity of controversy [is anticipated], this does not occur as anticipated. For as the case of BTC demonstrates, the production of information — in the form of the evolving archive [the host for all matters transparent at BP regard the BTC] — had the effect of multiplying the surfaces on which disagreements can incubate and flourish (182).
Now, there are host of other arguments of vast utility in this wonderful book, but this one sticks out because of recent discussions about assessment, accountability, and transparency in higher education. What Barry makes nakedly plain is that transparency is really a process of deciding what to make present (i.e.,public and transparent) and what to make absent (i.e., not public or transparent, but not identified as meaningful un-present). Thus, transparency is not a thing; it is a (strategic) process of showing and telling as well as hiding and obscuring. However, the hope that shines through — and I am hopeful about this — is that the real solution is right there, in front of us, if know how to look for it. The key is to see assessment and transparency as processes and engage them so that you see them as a whole because only when taken-together will the absences be apparent, and it is with these absences that we might multiple the much needed discussion and discourse surrounding the transparency, accountability, and assessment that so often impose themselves on our contemporary work lives.