Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Leaders under pressure

The Age of Deference is over. Western culture is shifting towards participation, instant celebrity and a sense of entitlement. This seems to be spreading slowly around the globe, through franchised tv programmes.

In the UK, Members of Parliament failed in their attempt to conceal details of expense claims and MPs faced outrage and criticism in the press and in their constituencies for fiddling. Some have been prosecuted in court and gone to prison.

Julian Assange and his team have enabled people around the world to find out what their politicians have been saying behind closed doors as well as individuals who have stashed wealth in Swiss bank accounts out of reach from the tax authorities. He has revealed the extent of civilian casualties in war, which were previously concealed in general terms such as 'collateral damage'. He also disclosed inhuman and degrading practices outlined in the Guantanamo Bay handbook and the instruction to staff to lie to the Red Cross.

What do leaders and organisations do when embarrassing information is made public?

'In this situation, organisations have two choices, says Assange. One is to "engage in plans that the public will support if they are revealed", meaning that they will have nothing to fear from transparency. The other is to "spend additional resources to keep those plans secret". The second, more common, course entails a toll on the economic logic of the organisation, which Assange calls a "secrecy tax". Also, "when an organisation acts in a more clandestine manner", he says, "its own internal efficiency decreases, because information cannot flow quickly through the organisation. This is another form of secrecy tax." For organisations to be efficient, they should be transparent, he insists.'

I'm not sure that governments willingly favour increased transparency. I think it's likely that less communication will be committed to print in future in sensitive areas.

Colin Hutchinson, an inspirational sustainable development consultant, told the story of Norsk Hydro. Environmentalists climbed over the fence of their plant in Norway, took soil samples and publicised the details of their findings after analysis showed substantial heavy metal contamination. The company were aware of the problem, but hadn't publicised it. Instead of increasing security and quashing the story in the media, they developed a comprehensive sustainable development policy and employed environmentalists to train their staff. Colin documented a range of examples of organisations that were criticised for poor practice, but rose to the challenge and developed policies that took them far beyond the initial criticism.

Colin Hutchinson is no longer with us, but his pioneering work lives on.

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