Lawrence Lessig's article "Against Transparency" in The New Republic has sparked a lot of debate about the perils of going down the road of "naked transparency". Lessig fears open data for government may end in citizen cynicism and withdrawal from the political process. Rather than being actually against transparency, he makes clear in his follow-on article and this interview that his real concern is that people will see transparency as the sole answer rather than the necessary combination of transparency + meaningful campaign finance reform.
I agree that transparency is not a panacea, but I believe he overstates the "perils" of open data. Take a look at the Sunlight Foundation's display of health care lobbyist contributions to Senator Max Baucus, author of the current main health care reform bill being debated in Congress. Will citizens reach "unwarranted conclusions" upon seeing the nearly half a million dollars Senator Baucus received from these lobbyists while he was shaping health care reform? It's a scandal that such a revelation does not lead his career to "be destroyed".
Of course, Prof. Lessig is in support of such thoughtful analyses and he is right to bring up the broader reform issues. I believe we need more of the kind of transparency and analysis that the Sunlight Foundation has fostered, but the cynicism question raises an important point. One can imagine a scenario in which people are participating in a process that is ultimately good while ignorant of some of its messier internal mechanics. Should that process be made transparent at the risk of alienating the participants or is ignorance really bliss?
Take the case of Kiva. Yesterday the Harvard Businesss Review pointed out that the peer-to-peer lending platform tells a story that is not entirely true. A large part of Kiva's appeal for lenders is the implicit promise that your money goes directly to the needy entrepreneur of your choosing. In reality, the $25 that you donate on Kiva to Ndidi Bienose, for example, is routed through his sponsoring NGO, Lift Above Poverty Organization (LAPO). LAPO collects all lender money and in turn distributes it to their entrepreneurs. This is one reason for the unexpectedly high repayment rates of Kiva (~98%) -- individual losses can be easily disguised within a group under an NGO. Microplace uses the same model, but has always been straightforward about it. Kiva, however, has been vastly more successful because of their more appealing, albeit untrue, story.
This unplanned transparency could turn into an example of what Lessig fears: that the exposing of the behind the scenes action will turn previously happy do-good Kiva lenders into cynics who now see P2P micro-lending as just as corrupt/misleading as the more traditional forms of aid that it hoped to supplant. Due to the attention problem that Lessig identifies, lenders will not take the time to learn that the end result of Kiva's and Microplace's approach is actually more effective and more efficient than direct peer-to-peer lending.
It's too soon to tell whether some Kiva lenders will be turned off enough by the revelation to stop participating, but I'm optimistic that the real Kiva story can be told effectively. There is a powerful fact that Kiva can stand behind : Lending through a field partner is more reliable than direct lending and smooths the process for the benefit of the entrepreneur that the lender is hoping to help. The bottom line of Kiva remains the same -- to alleviate poverty through microloans -- and in the end, your money still goes to Ndidi Bienose. In Seth Godin's parlance, the P2P story is still authentic, even if it is not entirely true.
So is the new transparency in Kiva a good thing? A few lenders may be lost, yes, but the ones who remain will have full knowledge of the process and will no longer be duped. The strongest and most engaged communities are built on honesty. The same is true of government.
Flickr credit: bgblogging via Creative Commons, where I get all my photos and a concept for which I thank Lawrence Lessig for pioneeering