Does transparency equal trust?

By Kate Kelly
Published 17 Aug 2021

Kate Kelly, a lead researcher at AQA, explores the link between trust and transparency in a digital age.

Trust is the foundation on which the value of a student’s grade rests. For employers, colleges and universities to take a student’s grade seriously, they have to trust in that grade. It sounds simple, but it raises some complex questions for exam boards. For example, what is trust? How can trust be built? And what should we be doing to make sure our grading processes are worthy of trust?

These questions – which are always important – are particularly poignant this year, as we work to develop new ways of certifying students in a global pandemic.

A good place to start when considering these issues is the work of Onora O’Neill, a Cambridge philosopher who has written extensively about trust. In 2002, she delivered a series of lectures on the topic. I want to focus on one: her lecture on trust and transparency. We intuitively feel that total transparency is the solution to a lack of trust. But here we are, living in an age of unparalleled access to information, and yet, she says, we don’t have trust. If anything, trust in our governments and institutions has only decreased. Why is that?

The problem, as O’Neill points out, is that lies and misinformation travel as freely as truth in the digital age. Just because we are being told something openly doesn’t make it true, and deception is commonplace. O’Neill was writing 20 years ago, but recent developments such as the wave of disinformation in the pandemic and the increasing sophistication of deepfakes demonstrate the continued relevance of her argument.

“Unless the individuals and institutions who sort, process and assess information are themselves already trusted, there is little reason to think that transparency and openness are going to increase trust.” (O'Neill, Reith Lectures 2002: A Question of Trust)

So, transparency alone is not the answer. Part of the answer is that we must make it as easy as possible for readers to check their facts, and to be trustworthy and reliable in our interactions with those who come to us for information. But as a researcher, I’m most interested in O’Neill’s observation that sometimes trust fails because the information that needs checking is arcane and obscure.

We want to do our best by the students that take AQA exams. Sometimes that means doing complicated things that are hard to explain. One example that springs to mind is the Uniform Mark Scale, which existed to maintain standards when qualifications were largely modular. It was necessary but complex, and I spent a lot of time answering questions about how an individual’s mark had been derived.

Researchers live in a world of detail, and we love to share that detail with others. But we also want to be trusted and to use our expertise to make a positive difference. To do that, we need to find a balance between transparency and accessibility. We need to make our work understandable without dazzling people with the detail. Most of all, we need to remember that trust has to be earned.

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