Defining transparency

Transparency in campaigning isn’t just about sharing campaign plans, making videos and being authentic on social media. That’s all important and can build relationships and increase name awareness. But there’s one level of transparency that’s about talking a lot – and openly. And there’s another level of transparency that involves opening yourself up to risk and inviting others to share that risk with you.

I’ve recently been working on a story about transparency in campaigning and what, if anything, is new or can be learned from the 2018 U.S. elections. I’ve looked at the Beto O’Rourke campaign which produced 1,300+ (or so) Facebook Live videos and shared its field plan (and results) online. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has used social media, especially Instagram, with authenticity to foster stronger, trusted relationships with supporters

There’s also been a good deal written previously about “open campaigns” – groups putting their campaign plans out there for all to see – and distributed campaigning or big organizing that gives people the power and tools to act on behalf of the campaign.

For candidates like O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez, sharing their day to day life builds name recognition. For activists, sharing plans and giving supporters tools to act independently is about trust and scaling impact.

But, shifting gears a bit, transparency creates personal and strategic risks. And it’s precisely the risk of opening up yourself, your organization, your plans, to others that makes transparency powerful.

Last week I read Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. The book is Jose Antonio Vargas’s memoir that begins with him being sent from the Philippines to the U.S. at 12 years old to live with his grandparents. From that point forward his childhood was about as “normal” as any California teenage could experience.

That changed when Vargas turned 16 and went to get a driver’s license. He was turned away because he didn’t have the right identification. He went home and found out from his grandfather that he was undocumented. His family sent him to the U.S. without going through the “proper” immigration channels. After living in the U.S. for four, ten or 20 years the only legal option is to abandon the life he’s built, return to a Philippines that he no longer knows and wait for 10 or more years to possibly immigrate to the country he grew up in.

Vargas, of course, didn’t leave the U.S. He became a high school and college journalist and later worked in D.C. for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He has directed documentaries, co-founded Define American, and been a guest of Rep. Nancy Pelosi at the 2017 State of the Union address.

In 2011, Vargas wrote My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant. He came out as undocumented, practically inviting the government to deport him. Looking back, he writes in Dear America:

I am not hiding from my government. My government is hiding from me. At least that’s how it’s felt in the past seven years, living a public life while practicing what I call “radical transparency,” which has taken on various forms.

Transparency, it seems, protects Vargas. His visibility has turned him into a spokesperson. Deporting Vargas would cause more problems than it would solve for people and agencies opposed to immigration.

But transparency – or at least Vargas’s approach to it – has done something else in this case. Basically, it seems there are a couple levels of transparency. One involves openness and exposure. It means talking about your plans, releasing documents and inviting outsiders and other people make their voice heard – even weigh in.

This is the transparency of open government and open campaigning. It’s valuable. It means people can engage because they’re no longer in the dark. But it can remain exclusive. The agency, organization, staff still makes decisions and is ultimately responsible for what happens.

Another level of transparency invites people in to help make the decisions. People don’t just know what’s going on, they have a hand in deciding whether actions are good or bad and how to respond. In the end, this transparency makes everyone involved responsible – and puts them at risk.

This is the transparency of movement building. Vargas talks of helping to organize 30+ undocumented young people to travel across country for a Time magazine cover photo. Vargas could easily make his case about the immigration system and undocumented people without dozens of them joining him and putting themselves at risk. But by putting themselves on the line these people are showing that other people are also willing to be radically transparent for this cause. They’re modeling transparency and leadership for others.

Vargas goes on to speak at length about transparency and how, as a journalist, it is easier for him to be transparent on the outside than in his personal life. Living as an undocumented person who works, pays taxes, and obeys laws also means not having the right to vote, drive, cross the border. It also means living with knowing you could be removed from the country and lose your job, relationships, family and friends overnight.

Transparency is complicated and has personal/private as well as public/political layers.

You’re going to grapple with transparency if you’re a political candidate, running a political campaign or working on an advocacy effort. Social media, the web and open data have all changed the public’s perception of how much and what kind of transparency is required.

Consistently opening up yourself  (or your campaign), your ideas and beliefs, and your plans for putting those beliefs into action in the physical world invites others to do the same alongside you. It’s important to think about whether you really want that – and to commit to the level of transparency that you need.

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