In 1998, ‘transparency’ was dubbed the ‘word of the moment’ in the New York Times Magazine. Nearly twenty years later, transparency’s popularity endures, as it has become entrenched in the governance lexicon. Calls for transparency are, if anything, more ubiquitous in policy discussions today, and even organisations with deep-rooted cultures of secrecy are not exempt from its purview. Given that transparency is understood as a corrective tool with the promise of remedying the deficits of existing political, bureaucratic and economic institutions, transparency mechanisms, this collaborative working group aims to address underlying problems that result from complex governance arrangements.
In doing so, the working group on transparency and governance seeks to provide much-needed critical engagement with transparency. Many researchers often reiterate transparency’s importance as a principle of governance, but they fail to examine its deployment in context. The bulk of scholarly work on the topic focuses primarily on quantity, that is, how do we get more transparency, rather than querying its appropriateness or the adjoining dilemmas that accompany it. Very often, work in this area consists of single case studies and recommendations, many of which are not broadly applicable to other areas or consist mainly of ‘box-ticking’ exercises. A smaller number of researchers address issues of quality, that is, how to ensure that the information made available through transparency measures is meaningful and useful in terms of, for example, increasing accountability.
While both are important issues we argue that there is an equally pressing need for scholars to step back and ask fundamental questions. We ask: For whom and to what end is transparency being promoted? How is transparency contextually contingent and situated? How do broader social conditions inform both the need for and nature of transparency as an accountability mechanism?