Online workshop explores the theoretical case ‘Against Transparency’

Transparency –openness of government– is a value that no one wants to be seen pleading against. Or is it? An online workshop, organised by the Academy of Finland-funded research project TrUE explores the case ‘against transparency’. The workshop is open to the public, upon registration.

A lively understream of academic research in law and the social sciences has for many years highlighted the problematic sides of an all-too-quick embrace of the idea of transparency. What is its case against transparency? How does it challenge prevalent conceptualisations and theoretical assumptions to arrive at its position? These are some the questions that the upcoming online workshop, carrying the title “‘Against transparency’ Conceptualising the problematic sides of government openness”, will address.

Rather than taking up an outright partisan position against transparency as such, the workshop seeks to hold the widespread normative assumption of transparency as ‘good, in principle’ against the light. What happens if we momentarily suspend the notion that government should ordinarily be made ‘open, unless justified’? This question is explored in two sessions by a selection of expert speakers from various disciplinary backgrounds.

A lively understream of academic research in law and the social sciences has for many years highlighted the problematic sides of an all-too-quick embrace of the idea of transparency. What is its case against transparency?

Session 1, which takes place on Thursday 10 September in the afternoon, explores the epistemological linkage between transparency and rationalism. Jeremy Bentham, Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis, Jürgen Habermas and Karl Popper: since long, transparency has been theorised and defended by an impressive list of rationalist theorists of politics and the state. However, like all policies, government transparency is designed on the drawing table. To what extent is conjunction as seamless as it is portrayed? What if certain assumptions turn out to be conflicting? What if, on balance, transparency does more harm than good?

Speakers in this panel are security studies scholar Marlen Heide (Universita della Svizzera italiana, Switzerland), political theorist Stéphanie Novak (Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Italy), public administration scholar Alex Ingrams (Leiden University, Netherlands), and administrative law scholar Ida Koivisto (University of Helsinki, Finland).

The second session takes place the next day, on Friday 11 September in the morning. It considers theoretical approaches that view transparency as a medium, and the diagnoses that they lead to. Transparency is frequently legitimised on the premise that it allows us to access the reality if not the very truth about governance. However, rather than forming a window to reality, transparency is better described as itself a medium. In an era of hyperreality, digitalisation, and political instrumentalisation, can we still hold on to the notion that the ‘truth is there to be discovered’? Or is transparency better understood as the ‘performance of reality’?

Speakers in the second sessions are GCTR 2021 organisers Mikkel Flyverbom (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark) and Leopold Ringel (Bielefeld University, Germany), media studies scholar Clare Birchall (King’s College, London UK) and philosopher Emannuel Alloa (University of Fribourg, Switzerland).

The online workshop is open to the public. Those interested must register here by Wednesday 9 September, noon, at the latest. The provided link also offers further details concerning time and how to attend.

‘Against Transparency’ is organised as part of the academic research project “Transparency in the EU- From Reaction to Manifesto” (TrUE), and is organised by Maarten Hillebrandt, Ida Koivisto, and Päivi Neuvonen. TrUE is based at the Eric Castrén Institute in the University of Helsinki’s Law School. The project is funded by the Academy of Finland and runs from 2017 to 2021. TrUE is also the current funder of this website. -MH

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