Transparency explained (with a pencil and a glass of water)

par | Juin 28, 2021 | Blog, L’éducation, La société

15 – 18 yo

What does a pencil in a glass of water have to do with public institutions? 


Public institutionan organization serving the public and set up for a specific purpose. If you attend a public school, you in fact attend a public institution whose purpose is to educate you and your peers. Other examples of public institutions are the EU institutions, government offices, courthouses and universities.

EU institutions – institutions of the European Union that produce the EU’s policies and oversee the management of its various programmes. The EU has seven main institutions and in this article, you will learn about one of them – the European Parliament.

Public officials – employees of public institutions, for example, EU employee, minister, governor, mayor, city council member, judge, school principal, university rector or dean.

Transparency of public institutions is a basic condition for democracy to work. It promotes good governance and builds trust in the policy- and decision-making process. It is also an important tool in preventing mistakes and wrongdoing by public officials.

Yet, the concept of transparency is quite complicated, can be difficult to explain and I bet even academics sometimes lose their sleep over it. Nevertheless, the knowledge of what transparency means by each and every one of us, citizens, is important for the proper functioning of our democracies. So how to describe this concept in an accessible way? I must admit, I struggled with it at first, but then I remembered something…

At school, the thing that often helped me understand many terms and concepts was experiments. It was just so much easier to “digest” a topic when I experienced it first-hand in class instead of trying to picture it in my head. Additionally, I sometimes used (and I still do) a so-called association technique that can help memorise many seemingly unrelated items or ideas. Combining experiments and the association technique worked wonders for me during the most difficult exams. Therefore, I thought why not use these two learning methods to describe transparency. If it worked for me in the past, it could (hopefully) work in this case just as well. I will therefore attempt to use a little experiment and associate it with transparency to present this concept in the most accessible and memory-friendly way that I could think of.


Let’s start with this little experiment. You need a glass, water and a pencil. First, pour almost the full amount of water into the glass and place the pencil diagonally in it, resting it on the edge of the glass. Then, observe the pencil and see what happens.

Looking from the side you will see a shifted image of the pencil in the water like in the picture above. This gives the impression that the pencil is cut in half. When you look from above, it seems that the pencil is crooked, and the length of the submerged part appears shorter than it really is. In a certain position, you can even see a double image of the pencil.

Is the pencil actually cut and crooked? Of course not. In this experiment, light travels through water, causing a shifted pencil image… All right, but what has this got to do with public institutions?


Simply put, transparency is the quality of being easily seen through. Just as we see a pencil in the water thanks to its transparency, we have the right to see what happens behind the doors of public institutions. This right, together with the means to examine the policy- and decision-making, is called transparency. Transparency requires ensuring that citizens have access to information about how public institutions work. It is a key element in building our trust in public institutions and holding public officials accountable (that is, responsible) for their mistakes. When an institution’s meetings are open to the press and public, information about its external interactions is available, its budget and documents can be viewed, and its decisions are open to debate, we can say that this institution is transparent.

If your friends claim that the pencil is cut or crooked, you can simply verify it by taking the pencil out of the water. Similarly, you should be able to easily verify information on public institutions. When public officials make alarming claims or media use shocking headlines, we can check whether they are actually true by accessing original documents or other resources of public institutions. For example, we know that institutions meet with many different organisations (such as private companies, banks, NGOs, etc.) representing specific interests. This dialogue is a necessary part of the policy-making process – it ensures that the policy responds to actual needs and is consulted with experts skilled in their specific field. However, these organisations can also try to influence public officials to make bad decisions in their interest, and this is the reason why this dialogue needs to be transparent – the information about every interaction should be publicly available to avoid any wrongdoing. For this purpose, the EU institutions set up the so-called Transparency Register. It is a tool that provides citizens with information about what organisations met with public officials, whom they represent, what their mission is, and how they are funded. Access to the Transparency Register is open to anyone online.

After taking the pencil out of the water you can show your friends that the pencil is not cut or crooked, but in fact straight. By doing so, you prove your friends wrong and hold them accountable for their mistake. Citizens have the right to hold public institutions and officials accountable for their mistakes too. In the EU, the European Parliament exercises this role on our behalf. We directly select the Members of the European Parliament in the European elections to represent us in the policy- and decision-making process. The European Parliament has the power to question the positions of other EU institutions and even make them resign in some cases. It also examines citizens’ petitions, further ensuring that the citizens’ voices are heard on the European level. As an individual, you can also hold a public official accountable by appealing to the European Ombudsman. This is an independent body that helps people, businesses and organisations who face problems with EU institutions by investigating their complaints, but also by proactively looking into possible issues within these institutions.

These are just a few examples of how transparency works. I really hope it helped you get some clarity on this concept and proved that it can help us shape our democracies for the better. In practice, there is still much to be done, but fortunately, there are various organisations that advocate for greater transparency of public institutions and organise campaigns on this topic. If you want to get involved or just find out more about them, check the websites of:

If you want to know more about transparency in the EU, have a look at this webpage.

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