Evaluator Competencies Series: Transparency

1.6 Is committed to transparency in all aspects of the evaluation.

transparent adjective

a: free from pretense or deceit : FRANK

b: easily detected or seen through : OBVIOUS

c: readily understood

d: characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

To reflect on this competency, I decided to see what the definition of “transparency” is. I usually think of transparency in the sense of “sharing all the information”, which is a bit more extreme than one can actually be in an evaluation. For example, we have an ethical responsibility to maintain confidentiality for participants in our evaluations when they want their identity to be kept confidential. Sometimes we are working with proprietary information that the organization requires to be kept confidential. So as with so many things, being “transparent” requires a bit of nuanced thinking.

Glasswinged Butterfly

I used to work with someone who talked about her role in a communication chain in a hierarchical organization, where information came from the top and was cascaded down through the org chart. Sometimes, information was only allowed to be shared to a certain level – say, it could go from the VPs to the EDs to the Directors, but the Directors were not allowed to share it with the Managers – at least not yet. And this person’s (who was in a Director role) approach to it was to tell their managers “I do know this information but I am not allowed to share it with you at this time.” And then they would give the reason (e.g., “Leadership is planning to do X, but until it is signed off by the board of directors, it’s not official and so they do not want put this information out broadly in case the board does not sign off it on, as it could cause confusion.”). And then they would make a commitment to tell their managers as soon as they were allowed to. This approach stuck with me, because it was honest (they weren’t saying “I don’t know this information” when they really did know, which is an approach I’d seen others take in these types of situations) and it was as informative as it was possible to be given the situation – giving a reason why they weren’t allowed to share the information at that time, rather than just saying “I’m not allowed to say”. I find that not giving a reason usually results in people coming up with their own theories about what information is being kept hidden – and that ends up causing rumours and confusion. So I think that this (sharing what you can and being honest about what you can’t share and why) can be a useful approach to being transparent. Of course, there can be good reasons or bad reasons for not wanting to share information, so I think we also have a responsibility to think critically about the reasons why an organization might not want to share and to push back in situations where appropriate (e.g., if an organization wants to suppress evaluation findings because they think it makes them look bad, as I talked about last week, I’d push back on that).

I was interested to see that the definition of “transparent” isn’t just about making information accessible, but also making information “readily understood” and “free from pretence or deceit”. These are things I can get behind. Obviously, a credible evaluation should not include anything deceitful, but I think making information “readily understood” is something that is sometimes overlooked. There are so many ways that we can exclude people from evaluation by not being “readily understood” – whether that be by the way we design our evaluations, the ways we recruit participants, the methods we use, or the way the report the findings. There seems to be a lot of interest in the evaluation world around data visualization – i.e., presenting data in ways that actually convey the meaning of them. This is something that my team and I are actively working to get better at. And there’s interest in alternative reporting formats – i.e., not just handing over a 200 page report, but actually thinking about ways to report evaluation findings that work for those who are interested in those findings.

Glasswinged butterfly (Greta oto)

Something I see spoken about less often, but that I think about a lot, is the use of language. I’m a bit fan of clear, simple language when writing 1Though I will admit that I have a tendency to be wordy, I write complicated sentences, and I overuse footnotes to an excessive degree. because I think that if I’m writing something, I want people to understand it. I mean, isn’t that why I’m writing it? I try to avoid jargon (or at the very least explain any jargon that I use) and prefer to pick a simple word over an obscure one. But I often see writing that is full of jargon, and unnecessarily large and obscure words. Part of me thinks that people write this way in an attempt to look intelligent. And I have seen situations where people use jargon as a way to try to cover up that they don’t know what they are talking about (which becomes evident as soon as you start asking questions like “What do you mean when you use the word X?”) An even more cynical part of me thinks that people write like this in order to exclude other people, by making the knowledge they are ostensibly trying to “share” non-understandable by “others” who don’t have the same training/background as them. After all, knowledge is power and keeping knowledge away from others by making it not understandable to others is a way of holding onto power. Which to me, is another reason to make the effort to make my writing as clear and easy to understand as possible.

At any rate, I hadn’t really thought about making information “readily accessible” as being part of “transparency” before, but it makes sense when I think about it.

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1 Though I will admit that I have a tendency to be wordy, I write complicated sentences, and I overuse footnotes to an excessive degree.
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