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Transparency and trustworthiness are not the same thing

Apparently there’s some sort of teacake and dog festival starting in Scotland this week – but the big north of the border event as far as I’m concerned has been the publication of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator’s annual report.

The most significant announcement in the report is the news that the OSCR will start publishing charities’ accounts on its website at some point soon, pending a slightly knotty legal issue parliament will need to sort out through legislation.

While the website of the Charity Commission already freely and easily gives access to the last five years of accounts for English and Welsh charities, the same doesn’t happen in Scotland.

Online publication of accounts would contribute to the regulator’s goal of “charities you can trust and that provide public benefit”, the OSCR’s report says. Separately, David Robb, the chief executive of the OSCR, told me that the new policy “is supported by our recent stakeholder surveys, which showed that public confidence is encouraged by transparency”.

My question is: how? This doesn’t actually provide evidence or tell us the way in which publishing accounts will increase trust. The fear, of course, is that having more information out there in the public domain makes you vulnerable to bad headlines, or members of the public mistrusting what they don’t understand. A member of the public who comes across something they don’t understand on p27 of your annual accounts is surely more likely to decide it must be something fishy than they are to email your FD for an explanation. Transparency, while it is so often seen as an inherently good thing in and of itself, is not a synonym of trustworthiness.

Another clue as to why the OSCR has come out with this policy is that, as it notes in its report, the Charity Commission already does it. All very well, but I wonder how far the fact of what is done in London will go in explaining broader policy decisions of the OSCR, or the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland, or two recently announced regulators – the Charity Commissioner for Jersey, or the Charities Regulatory Authority in the Republic of Ireland. With the amount of flack the commission gets, is it the best role model?

These concerns aside, it is still worth celebrating the fact that the Charity Commission, and therefore the third sector, is ahead of the game here. Trying to get the annual reports of a private company from Companies House is a mini-minefield, with a very user-unfriendly website and online system to navigate and a fee of £1 for each document you want to read. That said, Companies House did announce last week that it was going to overhaul its system and get rid of that charge – so we won’t be in the ascendancy for long.

What, then, is the commission’s next move? Ten years of accounts to be made publicly available? Every annual account ever? With infinite space for documents on the cybersphere, there is a never-ending scope for more information to be put out to the masses.