WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange shook the world with his disclosure of thousands of confidential and secret documents involving U.S. foreign policy.
In an interview with Forbes, Assange pointed toward his next target: business. Though Assange was subsequently sidelined, others are being inspired by his example, and a long wave of involuntary transparency is rolling through the world.
This is not a surprising development. Serve to Lead identifies the ongoing convergence, the breakdown of longstanding boundaries, including those of the public and private sectors.
Much of this is already familiar to organizations in every field. Whether a business is concerned with litigation risk, protecting its brand and positioning, or its relationships with any among a myriad of stakeholders, communications must be a strategic concern in a world where everyone can be a publisher.
Transparency Provides Incentives for 21 Century Leaders to Act Ethically
Much of this is all to the good: it creates incentives to do the right thing (and, arguably, as George Washington stressed, to also be understood to be doing the right thing, which may require additional effort and resources).
It’s a key reason why doing the right thing is, increasingly, a competitive advantage.
Will Involuntary Transparency Make Decision-making More–or Less–Transparent?
At the same time, there are new challenges.
For many years–since the Vietnam-Watergate era–government agencies have worked within ever tightening strictures of information disclosure. National defense and foreign policy have been somewhat exempted, though that has also been breached long before WikiLeaks, most spectacularly in the Pentagon Papers case.
An unintended consequence of increasing, real-time, selective, involuntary transparency is that decision-making can become more rather than less isolated. Meetings occur rather than written briefings; briefings are communicated in code; participants may be distracted from the matter at hand as they work to mitigate the foreseeable effects of unpredictable disclosure, well-intended or malicious, by third parties. Outsiders–whether authoritative or idiosyncratic–may be reluctant to offer unvarnished input. Confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. Anyone participating in decision making may be conditioned against considering or expressing thoughts that could be viewed as at variance with their public roles.
The bottom line: valuable information, insights and creativity are not brought forward and tested in candid conversation and vigorous debate.
Conflict Between Involuntary Transparency and Effective Decision-making?
The federal Freedom of Information Act and many state laws in its image attempted to deal with this risk by creating protected areas for “deliberation.” In practice, though, such a distinction is often unclear. And, in the age of involuntary transparency, with confidentiality so often breached, a participant would be ill advised to rely on even good faith confidentiality guarantees.
In many situations, such prospective disadvantages can be outweighed by crafting participatory processes which take advantage of the new information age tools. Collaboration can create spectacular value and innovation and buy-in.
But not all situations. As the national security leaks illustrate, there are situations where confidentiality is necessary to obtain the best possible information.
There is also a need to protect a space for experimentation and creativity among decision-makers. Increasingly, high-position decision-makers add value not through their expertise or access to information, but through their judgment and creativity.
The detours, including inconclusive or failed thought experiments of decision-makers at the highest levels can easily be captured and edited by others to discredit the enterprise. This can create problems in any enterprise where the stakes are high, information is limited, and imagination may be required for the best possible resolution.
Some of the dangers in this new world are seen in Bob Woodward’s revealing work, Obama’s Wars.
Administration officials were keenly aware that their presentations or discussions might be shared with Woodward or others. Diaries and other personal attempts to clarify thinking are discouraged. There are no settled norms about leaking information–even from interactions with the president.
These same issues are seen in corporate decision-making.
New Norms for Confidentiality?
One of the beneficial results of the new age of transparency is the near universal recognition that too much information has been shielded from the public in the past. So often, most notably with the extraordinary over-classification of government documents since the dawn of the Cold War era, this has been a cloak for various self-interested actions.
How will lines of legitimate confidentiality be redrawn? Who decides?
What is the role of privacy? Even Assange cried foul at the leak of confidential documents relating to himself. Who decides?
How will we ensure that collaborative tools can be used to craft better, more creative decisions? If involuntary transparency sends decision makers into isolation to gain confidentiality, what will be the consequences?