Transparency Is More Than Public Disclosure

Fifteen years ago you could anticipate what a critical tweet might do to the reputation of an organization making a questionable or unexplained decision.

At that time I was working with a futures research project for the American Society of Association Executives Foundation when the Institute for Alternative Futures named transparency as one of the seven strategic conversations that could transform associations. You could see the potential emerging in citizen activist networks fighting environmental and human rights issues.  Or in the early days of corporate social responsibility as consumers started punishing or rewarding businesses for their conduct.

This statement from the research publication Exploring the Future nailed it:  “The trend toward greater transparency will continue because powerful forces are driving it.  These forces are unlikely to diminish over the generation ahead.” Digital communications like social media have only accelerated this demand for openness. Although associations and governments have embraced the need for transparency, they continue to struggle with what to disclose and how best to do it. 

Is anyone naïve enough to believe that C-Span gives us anything more than a venue for political theater? Congress still makes decisions in ways that confound us. This is why I am really puzzled that some associations are jumping on the ability to livestream regular governance meetings. Or why so many associations have adopted the practice of  publishing board minutes on their websites.

Writing in Exploring the Future 15 years ago, my very wise futurist colleague Robert Olson observed: In associations, process transparency enables members to see how to participate, get decisions made, and accomplish something. Associations with little process transparency risk limiting the involvement and motivation of newer members because only long-time members know how to operate. Process transparency also involves more openness about how decisions were made. Leadership by “command decision”—without explanation –is unacceptable to members who have a stake in the organization. Association leaders should have processes in place to track and explain how they arrived at important decisions.

Associations should be striving for full accountability to open and defensible processes of inquiry, consensus building and decision making. This should not be confused with practices that look like full disclosure and are really exercises in spin or political theater. You can’t silence the back channel chatter or hide real motivations for decisions from smart and curious members. 

With process transparency, important decisions should never seem arbitrary. Your members should know why decisions were made and why they make sense for your association. Yes it  may well require frank honesty and authenticity to own some of your more pragmatic business or policy decisions. 

You will still have a few critics who will second-guess your decisions. That’s just reality. If over time you build a reputation for true transparency and trustworthiness, these critics will build a reputation as curmudgeons who care more about grabbing attention for themselves than supporting decisions that serve your association well.