Thursday, December 20, 2007


Dear Colleagues

Transparency is a part of the Tr-Ac-Net agenda. Over the past two decades there has been a lot of dialog about transparency ... but the practice of transparency has been in decline. In reality, there are many experts who are well prepared to discuss transparency, but few who are able to implement transparency.

Within a typical organization, the flow of information into the public arena is very much controlled, and the information that can be seen by the public is only the bit that the organization wants to be seen.

There are few laws or regulations that are effective in making an organization operate in a transparent manner, even though there is a voluminous and complex set of laws that impact almost anything done in modern society.

While there are rules in most jurisdictions that require certain information to be filed and be in the public record, this information is usually insufficient to the informative. Accordingly, the public perception of an organization's performance is usually determined by a small amount of financial information and a large amount of information that reflects simply what the organization wants the public to know ... rather than what the public really ought to know.

Laws that are meant to help the public get access to information in government are easy to render ineffective. The idea that a government agency under the Freedom of Information Act can give the public hundreds of pages of boilerplate text, together with one or two pages with contract financial numbers fully blacked out is preposterous ... but it is the practice ... and apparently it is lawful.

Because there is no effective transparency ... the financial behavior of many organizations in which the public should have trust is severely compomised. There is a serious disconnect between the funds raised for a lot of good causes and the amount of money that is deployed on the ground as assistance ... where does the money go? The South East Asia tsunami disaster in December 2005 got the world's attention and a lot of money was contributed to mitigate the impact of the disaster ... but the amounts deployed do not seem to be anything like the amounts contributed. Where is the money? The Katrina disaster on the US Gulf Coast triggered huge fund flows, but there is little transparency about these fund flows. What happened to the money?

Transparency is difficult for an organization when its accounting is inadequate. This is a widespread problem. There are legitimate pieces of information that should reasonable be hidden from public view ... but anything that has a significant impact on society should reasonably be subject to public scrutiny. Being profitable is a reasonable organizational objective, but maximizing profit by devaluing the commons is not reasonable ... and the role of transparency is, as much as anything, to make sure that this does not take place.


Peter Burgess
for Tr-Ac-Net