Apr 26, 2010

Clarity trumps transparency.

This morning, Morning Joe featured French Economy and Finance Minister Christine Lagarde discussing the financial situation in Greece and the EU’s response. Toward the end of the conversation, she was asked to comment on the American financial "reset." Here’s how it went:

Lagard: “It all rotates around key issues and principles. And to me, anything that supports clarity, things being over the counter for real …”

Joe and Mika: “Yeah, transparency …”

Lagard: “I’m not sure that transparency is the right thing. [With] transparency, you can have so much information that you’re lost in it. So I'm much more in favor of clarity with what really matters.”

Ms. Lagard's distinction between clarity and transparency is right on. The difference is point of view. It’s a difference that matters.

Transparency considers only the message giver—in this case, financial institutions. Transparency requires publication and nothing more. Once all is published, all is transparent, whether or not the audience gets lost.

But clarity as a communication concept includes the message receiver. A message is clear only if the audience understands it. Clarity implies interplay among parties in a communication transaction that successfully transfers intended meaning. In that sense, clarity is a stricter standard than transparency. To demand clarity is to require financial institutions to communicate so that reasonable people will actually understand what the institutions are doing and what the risks are. To bring things over the counter, for real.

All too often, institutions use transparency to obfuscate, not to clarify. Messages about the details of a car lease displayed on a TV screen in 4 point type and spoken at lightning speed are transparent; they’re not clear. Pages and pages of legalese on credit card applications are transparent; they’re not clear.

Words—in the context of sentences, paragraphs, and stories—shape and reflect the ways we think, act, and value. Mme. Lagard is right. We need clarity about what really matters. That ought to be one of the standards against which any financial reform legislation is measured.

Rings true to me. And you?


  1. really, REALLY useful distinction -- Jon's taking it to the School Board, which has been struggling with the concept of communication and engagement with the public. Part of their struggle lives in what medium they choose to use for conveying information, and in what timeframe. Thanks for articulating this so simply.

  2. Yeah, you betcha! Glad it'll be helpful.

  3. Clarity is in the eye of the beholder. You might as well say we need an opinion. Transparency requires allows/requires the person to make up his own mind, not be persuaded to see someone elses "clarity". Things can be clear but not true. Clarity allows things to hide. I can explain something to do and you can understand it very clearly, but by no means is it correct. Transparency is complete clarity.

  4. Matt, yes, clarity is in the eye of the beholder. It seems you're saying that since transparency can be transparent irrespective of the audience, it's a better standard than clarity, which requires taking the audience into account. Why? Because clarity "allows things to hide" and is "by no means correct". IOW, it's easier to be unclear (hidden) if you use clarity as a standard than if you use transparency.

    My question is, why? Why is transparency not subject to your same critique? What about transparency rather than clarity protects it from the qualities of "allow to hide" and "by no means correct"?

    An example of how I can hide using a transparency standard: If my requirement is strictly transparency rather than clarity (taking the audience into account), what prevents me from publishing the information in question in Klingon? I can claim absolute transparency in a language you don't understand. But if I'm not accountable to a standard that takes your understanding into account, what prevents me from doing so?

  5. Good response. Very true. However, I'm struggling to find a situation where that might happen. My response to something like that would be this. It is the peoples responsibility to demand transparency which is coherent to an audience. If any organization posted legitimate documents in any other language than one that could be understood it would be the citizens job to demand they publish in one that they could. Instead however, the trend today is to have the Government force them to publish it in English.

  6. Matt, agree completely with this: "If any organization ... it would be the citizens' job to demand they publish in [a language] that they could [understand]". Exactly. Which, I think, is equivalent to saying that citizens have a responsibility to demand clarity from the institution.

    If I read you correctly, your struggle is what seems to be the utter subjectivity of my concept of clarity, which lets listeners off the hook. But I don't think it's *utterly* subjective, and I don't think listeners are without responsibility. Bringing language into the conversation shows how: Clarity flows from an interplay between parties who share and respect certain norms and customs of meaning. Language symbols are perhaps the most basic. But there are more. And listeners have a responsibility to make reasonable effort to understand, just as institutions have a responsibility to make reasonable efforts to be clear. It's an interplay, a transaction. As I see it, the big problem in our current context is that institutions have an interest in making things unclear in order to hold power. And I think they use transparency as an excuse to avoid clarity.