Excessive scrutiny makes transparency an industry

Transparency, the desire to see all and know all, has become an industry.

It is easy to forget that the scrutiny of public figures and all their doings is a quite recent phenomenon.

Listen to an archive radio interview or watch a television interview with any politician from more than 30 years ago, and you will be struck with the respectful deference shown by the interviewer.

This is a far cry from the pictures published of Enda Kenny playing air guitar at the Bruce Springsteen concert in Croke Park a few weeks ago.

The deference of the past was inappropriate, but are we now at another extreme?

Public figures should be allowed to play air guitar in their own time without anyone raising the implicit question as to whether or not it reflects on their capacity to deliver their day job.

Public scrutiny is, of course, vital in fighting corruption and fraud and wrongdoing, but it is by no means obvious that excessive public scrutiny always contributes to better performance or practice.

After the Panama papers were published in April, showing the use of offshore trusts and companies to conceal the financial affairs of some high-profile individuals, one of the reactions of the British establishment was to publish their tax returns.

British prime minister David Cameron published his return, as did his finance minister, George Osborne.

The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, published his own return but the following day had to acknowledge a mistake in the figures.

Does this kind of exposure make a real difference to probity in handling government decisions, or does it merely satisfy the prurient curiosity of commentators?

Contrast the Cameron/Osborne/Corbyn action with the response of Donald Trump.

When the presumptive Republican candidate for the US presidential election was asked to publish his tax returns, he promptly told journalists to mind their own business.

This overwhelming imperative to reveal all can be found everywhere. A few weeks ago, I booked online a guided tour in a European capital, highly rated by previous purchasers on the company website.

No sooner had I made the booking online than I was asked to complete a survey, not on the tour itself but on the “booking experience”.

This seems, to me, to be transparency gone mad.

Have we become so inherently distrustful of the activities of others that we must be asked to rate and publish our thoughts on this most elementary of transactions?

Would you post online your assessment of the way you were handed your change in the local shop?

The thinker Deirdre McCloskey has taken a closer look at the economic effect of our attitude towards others. Unlike many economists, who so often focus on the dismal side of their business, Ms McCloskey favours analysing just how well the world has done in the last two centuries.

The Industrial Revolution in England in the late 18th and 19th centuries led to the enrichment of many people, albeit not immediately everyone.

She points out that similar “revolutions” in technology and innovation in other countries were not followed by the longer term betterment of the general populace.

To explain this, Ms McCloskey suggests one of the crucial changes during the Industrial Revolution was that entrepreneurial spirit became not something to be decried, it was something to be embraced.

There wasn’t suspicion about success; success became enviable.

This insight is probably not the last word on how economic progress is made, but it is useful to contrast the 19th century attitudes to success with the 21st century suspicion of everything.

Suspicion leads to a demand for transparency, but more information does not automatically mean better judgement. The published accounts of public companies have mushroomed in size in the last 30 years, often running to several hundred pages.

Yet companies still go to the wall, and stock market crashes still happen. Tax returns are several times longer than they used to be, yet there is no particular evidence that all this extra detail has made a significant contribution to tax yields or tax collection.

Transparency is necessary, but we have to be discerning in what we need to see, and how we analyse what we learn.

There is no harm in being curious or amused when we see senior politicians playing air guitar at a concert. It’s the conclusions we may draw from it that are counter-productive.

Brian Keegan is director of taxation with Chartered Accountants Ireland


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