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"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 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.

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Tags: communications, leadership


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Comment by David B. Grinberg on December 10, 2013 at 5:46pm

This is a really great post, Dannielle.

Excellent analysis and info. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Mark Hammer on December 10, 2013 at 1:51pm

Sometimes, you want to know what's in the mustard and the bun, but you're not running to find out what's in the hot dog.

Transparency is not an all-or-nothing thing.  People want transparency about the things that matter to them at the moment, and don't want to be distracted by the behind-the-scenes details of things which do not interest them.  Indeed, sometimes knowing those details disappoints.  As a graduate student, I studiously avoided faculty-student events where I knew alcohol would be served (and try to avoid staff events of a similar nature now) because I like to maintain the most favourable impression of people possible, so that I could place faith in them, and would rather not see their dark or unconstrained side.

At the same time, how many people come to politics, or become jaded and disillusioned about the public sector, because their expectations are not fully informed about "how things work", and end up being unrealistic.  By "how things work", I don't mean any of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge aspects, handshake deals and all that, but rather the operational details and necessities that are often hidden from view, with projects and services magically showing up like shoes made by elves overnight.

We also rarely see any tangible record of how decisions are made, only what decisions get made.  The wisdom employed, and balancing off of stakeholder interests and often competing values, is seldom made available to anyone who wasn't in the room at the time, and valuable teaching examples for developing young leaders are squandered.

As for whistleblowing, my own approach is that it should broached like it was a public health challenge.  That is, you don't place your chips on post-hoc protection of whistleblowers, but rather direct your efforts into prevention of the need to disclose wrongdoing; the same way you sink your efforts into getting people to eat right, stop smoking, and exercise, instead of devoting your resources to developing the most efficient system for providing bypass and heart transplant surgery, and post-operative physiotherapy.  And the prophylactic strategy for avoiding the need to disclose wrongdoing is to foster a culture that places value on transparency; both in terms of explaining the rationale for decisions and actions, but also admitting mistakes when they happen, instead of attempting to bury the body.  I guess sometimes whether you want to or not, you gotta say/know what's in the hot dog, if only to make a better one.


Comment by Megan on December 10, 2013 at 1:37pm

I hope that the backlash against the Obama Administration's perceived or real hypocrisy regarding "openness" is the impetus for real change in the federal, state and local government agencies.  Having the agency teams launching apps contests and providing a few data sets for public access is not exactly moving forward with transparency goals. 

More about the public reaction to the 2nd US National Action Plan for OpenGov here:

Comment by Dannielle Blumenthal on December 10, 2013 at 8:42am

On a separate note I am sad that Digital Disruption was cancelled for today. Perhaps they will reschedule.

Comment by Dannielle Blumenthal on December 10, 2013 at 8:41am

Megan, thank you for your comment. Sexual assault in the military is a particularly abominable crime. It is unimaginable that someone signs up to serve, puts their life on hold and at risk, is then "rewarded" with horrific violation. After which the system attacks them for seeking justice (if they have the guts to do that). I appreciate your posts on GovLoop where you advocate for the rights of the employee and the importance of speaking truth to power. 

Comment by Megan on December 9, 2013 at 10:43pm

One aspect that is missing here is that many government employees try to use the internal processes to help out with Principle #11, but face retaliation, even when the info remains internal. 

When you see info leaking to the press or being made available to Congress, that is usually because the employees have exhausted all internal remedies and are finally at a point where sharing the info with the press is the only way to resolve the problems. 

What gets reported is rarely a one time occurrence, and the whistleblowers are often only seeing the tip of a larger iceberg, and usually not seeing it clearly. 

It has been interesting to read the testimonials from women who were sexually assaulted in the military, and found themselves the focus of retaliation by their chain of command.  There was no sense of resolution or justice until the word got out.  I think that was the real moment of relief for the survivors: when they shared the information and got feedback that what had happened to them was  terrible, because inside the gates it was trivialized, buried and forgotten.

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