Public Policy Research Cluster Distinguished Lecture 'Transparency and the Strategic Value of Ignorance'

Research Cluster

Speaker:John Roberts, University of Sydney Business School
Date: Tuesday 5 July 2016
Time: 4 pm
Location: Constantine Leventis Teaching Room, Building: one

Further details


The visual metaphor upon which the notion of transparency depends is deceptive. Whilst it seemingly offers us all a way of seeing through or behind closed doors, in practice all it ever offers are some frozen indicators or proxies of elements abstracted from distant contexts. Marilyn Strathern seeks to capture this by asking ‘What does transparency conceal?’ She also observes our strange collusion with the illusion of transparency; whilst we all know its limitations we nevertheless act as if its representations of distant contexts are indeed adequate - ‘realities are knowingly eclipsed’. In this talk I want to explore two possible ways of understanding this collusion with the imperfect representations offered of ourselves and the world by various forms of transparency. My first attempt at this sought to explain our ambivalent embrace of transparency in terms of the ways in which it plays upon and mobilises our narcissism. From this perspective the power of transparency lies in the way in which I and/or others may identify with the image of the self that transparency offers. Even if I know better, powerful or influential others may believe in what transparency reveals of me and this by itself is enough to encourage me to manage its representations. The remedy I offered here was to insist that, although we cannot manage without it we cannot manage only with transparency: at best transparency should be used only as a supplement or stimulus for more ‘intelligent’ forms of accountability. The second possibility that I will explore, however, is that the simplifications and distortions offered by transparency are simply too functional to be so easily abandoned. Rather than seek to mend the web of reciprocal understanding through intelligent accountability, learning and knowledge sharing, what if the art of managing is itself better seen as that of making the fullest possible use of the possibilities of ignorance that a complete reliance on transparency offers.

Short biography

John Roberts is a professor of the Accounting Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School. He did his undergraduate degree in Management Sciences, and a doctorate on the themes of Power Authority and Identity supervised by David Knights at UMIST. He then held Senior Research Fellowships in the Department of Accounting at Manchester University, and the Centre for Business Strategy at London Business School, before moving to a lectureship in Organization Behaviour at the then newly formed Judge Business School in Cambridge in the early 1990s. He moved from Cambridge to his current post in Australia in 2007. His work is quite eclectic and spans three sets of interests; accounting and accountability, corporate governance, and ethics. His accounting research has repeatedly explored processes of accountability and their objective and subjective effects. In the 1990s he developed a range of empirical and conceptual work looking at corporate governance reform processes in the UK. His more recent work has focused on the financial crisis, transparency and most recently corruption.