Radical Transparency: The Challenge to Sustainability and Democracy

The TakeAway: Reams of information released by WikiLeaks and the Federal Reserve challenge us to rethink our duties to promote sustainable accountability and representative democracy.

Debates on the recent WikiLeaks / Federal Reserve data dumps concentrate on the supply side of information tsunamis, but little attention has focused on the demand side.  This begs the question: how to process the vast material to make better decisions as citizens and capital investors?  Amidst the varied opinions about both events, most people focus on the ethics of what happened – and who’s next – rather than how the data gets absorbed and the implications for public engagement.  Transparency untethered to constructive action means little: it’s what you do with what’s revealed that counts.  Information swamping can easily lead to other kinds of problems—breeding alienation, apathy, and distrust so toxic to healthy markets and democracy.

Strange transparency bedfellows, these two:

  • Naked diplomacy  | WikiLeaks.org (now hosted on more than 500 “mirror sites” because it lost its DNS service provider) continues to play “catch me if you can” in a power vacuum as the UK holds its founder, Julian Assange, on (some say trumped up) sexual assault charges.  Meanwhile, people wait for WikiLeaks to hit Bank of America and Citi.

But with all this disclosure, there’s little discussion of signal-to-noise ratios, and what kind of intermediary structures can help us make sense of it all.  What are we to think of diplomatic norms (some say hypocrisy) revealed by “cablegate”, or the spectre of fat cats with tin cups waiting for Fed handouts?  What useful action can we take to assure that both diplomacy and capital investing are more closely aligned with our core values of honesty, respect, and dignity?

Both WikiLeaks and Sanders’ Fed provision serve as imperfect remedies to systemic power failures that reward corruption, authoritarianism, and public deception.  But we can take small steps toward the restoration of wise statecraft and stewardship by demanding greater accountability and integrity from  diplomatic and Wall Street elites.

For example, we can demand that our diverse media outlets provide more thoughtful coverage of foreign affairs (the first to disappear after budget cuts), and that our current Administration provide more thoughtful discussion of its foreign policy vision—with both groups engaging us in the process.  And we can support digital diplomacy efforts acknowledging 21st century statecraft in a networked world.

On the capital markets side, we can mobilize beyond our silos for sustainable accountability.  For example, we can insist upon better corporate sustainability reporting, along with laws and regulations requiring greater transparency and engagement.

We don’t know what kinds of public policy checks and balances will emerge to buffer the impact of that brand of “radical transparency” embodied by Assange and, to a far lesser degree, by Sanders.  But for corporate sustainability advocates, it’s a perfect opportunity to weigh in on integrated reporting and current SEC proposals on sustainable disclosure, proxy access, and whistleblower protection.  (On the latter, you have until December 17th to submit comments on the SEC proposals.)  As for leaks and whistleblowers, companies already are hurry-scurry to prepare for the new regime.

“Companies are plenty scared of the rising threat – not just from Assange – to the secrets they keep,” writes governance guru Nell Minow, co-founder of GovernanceMetrics International (GMI, formerly The Corporate Library).  She describes the corporate rush to lawyer up in her new blog for bnet.com. “Companies will be scrambling to shore up their anti-leak defenses.”  In addition to readying corporate documents “for primetime”, business also needs to “think about being nicer to employees who have hurt feelings and portable thumb drives”.

The actions of WikiLeaks and the Fed evoke widespread and sometimes fierce reactions, ranging from questions about ethics and the purpose of journalism, the watchdog press, and the limits to free speech—to the impact on American security, economic well-being, and public trust.

But they should spur a massive rethink of the accountability and engagement strategies – or lack thereof – of society’s powerful institutions, and how digital technology and social media can be used to enhance sustainability, democratic capitalism, and representative democracy, not undermine them.

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