Behind closed doors: privacy vs transparency?

Saturday 30 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Lunchtime Debates

It appears that being whiter than white is no longer enough to make those in public life trustworthy and believable: they have to be altogether see-through. Transparency is the watchword, whether symbolised in the Reichstag’s glass dome expressing the ‘openness of the new German Democracy’ or David Cameron’s new ’openness agenda’ to make more government information public, including the pay of senior civil servants and the monarchy. In the world of corporate management, my door is always open has given way to the no doors, no walls, no privacy, policy of open-plan offices. Private and public sectors alike strive to make their decisions and processes fully transparent, auditable and accountable: business operations are reduced to dashboards and key performance indicators. As individuals, if we aren’t Facebooking, tweeting or blogging, might it just be that we have something to hide?

Treating something or someone as innocent and trustworthy because that is how they appear on the surface now serves to mark one out as dangerously naïve. Whether it is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ arguments with respect to reported cases of domestic violence or rape, fury at the Catholic church for alleged cover-ups of child abuse, or outrage at the financial improprieties assumed to lurk at the heart of every big business, we seem to operate with a belief that things are never as they seem, that there is a potential Fritzl in every cellar: that we live in a sick society that the healthy winds of transparency must blow through to dispel the ill humours.

Many would point to the 2009 MPs expenses scandal as evidence of the corruption that can take place when authorities are allowed to operate away from public scrutiny. Is it necessarily the case though that closed doors equates to guilty secrets? Why are we so uncomfortable with phrases like ‘Leave it with me, you can trust me’? Why not judge people in terms of their results rather than auditing the process they follow? Good processes express the experience of those doing the work or making the decisions: if we demand transparency over these process, but lack the expertise ourselves, is there not a danger that we will feel that we are missing something, that something is being held back? That we will demand a higher and higher bar for trust? Is there an argument that trust might actually rely on privacy, on taking the risk, the leap of faith, that people will still be reliable when your back is turned? Is transparency all that it appears?


Dr Norman Lewis
director (innovation), PwC; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Phil Booth
coordinator, medConfidential

David Aaronovitch
columnist, The Times; author, Voodoo Histories; chair, Index on Censorship

Dan Schwarzmann
UK leader of business recovery services, PwC

Patrick Hayes
director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

Produced by
Patrick Hayes director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
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