"Blurred Lines," Bad Judgment & Transparency

Days of contemplation!

In a discussion at the Harvard Business Review's Working Knowledge newsletter, Professor Emeritus Dr. James Heskett asks, but cannot answer, "What are the limits of transparency?"

Some of the comments from his readers show how confused people get over this thorny topic. For example, take these two:

* "Share only data, not information."

* "Transparency protocols... a distinct process matrix to ensure that the appropriate amount of information is delivered."

It's not that people can't think clearly. They can. But when they must operate in a double-bind environment, they tend to respond with irrational, foggy or circular thinking. 

And business today is a paradox. For the function is essentially about survival - you seek to profit. Yet customers demand ethical behavior and social responsibility, not to mention allegiance to the law. And even further, they want to "know" who you are - your brand - they want authenticity.

So you have to open up and "be real." But just like in personal relationships, this can be a risk. Two of them are primary in the private sector: loss of competitive advantage and loss of reputation. Heskett explains these and offers two responses from commenters:

1. Loss of competitive advantage: Generals do not share their battlefield plans - coaches don't share their playbooks - and business leaders don't want to share with the world how they plan to win. To this, Gerald Nanninga counters:

"Great strategy should be so entwined into your unique business model that competitors wouldn't be able to readily implement it even if they knew what it was."

2. Loss of reputation: Businesses worry they will lose their halos or even descend into scandal if people share too much. To which Khadija Khan argues:

"There is really no need for whistle blowers if the responsible organizations including government organizations disclose information to general public without reservations and let them make use of the one relevant to them." 

The federal government is not a business per se, but some of the conversations around transparency mimic those in the private sector. For example:

1. Power: As above, no individual or group wants to lose it.

2. Reputation: Also as above, nobody wants to look bad.

At the same time, federal employees hold positions of public trust and are therefore subject to ethical guidelines that require transparency even when such transparency shows we screwed up.  Principle #11 of 14 from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics clearly states that federal employees: "shall disclose waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption to appropriate authorities." 

Of course this mandate does not help whistleblowers all the time. Wherever they sit, private sector or government, they routinely face retaliation. So much so that the President's Second Open Government Plan (Dec. 6, 2013) has a special section about increasing their protections.

The rationalization around attacking whistleblowers is really a misreading of the ethics imperative against sharing "nonpublic information," meaning: "information that the employee gains by reason of Federal employment and that he or she knows or reasonably should know has not been made available to the general public."

From the Ethics perspective, this kind of "wrongful transparency" basically comes down to two concerns:

1. National Security: Obviously, the number-one principle of government ethics is loyalty to the Constitution. Thus the National Insider Threat Policy defines an "insider threat" as "the threat that an insider will use her/his authorized access...to do harm to the security of the United States." 

2. Personal Gain: Public servants may not line their pockets using information they obtained because of their jobs. Of the 14 core ethical principles listed by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (U.S. OGE), four of which explicitly refer to money and two referring to "private gain."

But there is a subtler concern here as well. It is harder to express but it is no less important than the other two. And this is where the confusion comes in. One can think of it as:

3. Interference With Operations: When I worked at U.S. Customs and Border Protection we had a code of conduct that covered a lot of ground. The overarching message: "Don't do things to bring shame on the government."

From a social media point of view, describing honestly what goes on inside a federal agency actually enhances trust - we know that the public perceives efforts to "spin" or close down the message as detracting from credibility. Even the presence of a public affairs officer in an interview ("a minder")  is seen as a form of inappropriate censorship.

Yet agencies don't usually see it this way. For example the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives initially treated the potential publication of whistleblower agent John Dodson's book on Fast & Furious as a "morale" and "relationships" issue (ultimately the book went to publication; Dodson will not be compensated for writing it.)

Times are changing, though.

As both "politicals" and "civils" see the importance of transparency to the public (and frankly as they see it cannot be avoided), they are quicker to embrace forthrightness - even at the level of the President.

There is one area that should be off limits, though: deliberation.

Think about the time you spend meditatively, when nobody is around. The conversations you have with your spouse, your children, a trusted friend or colleague.

This is your thought process. It is the non-fully-formed idea, not yet blossomed into action.

Should those thoughts be subjects to the world's scrutiny before they are ready? Should every conversation that takes place be "Tweetable" to the world?

The reasonable person would say "no."

There are limits on transparency. Maybe the Kardashians do it, but for the rest of us it is not productive or normal to have every waking moment documented on tape.

We ought to let our public officials, individually and in private meetings, have some breathing room, so that they can work thorny issues out before bringing them before the public eye.

Join me at tomorrow's "Digital Disruption Panel" - yes it's still on, despite the weather - where we'll talk about these issues and more. 

* All opinions my own.