Radical Transparency

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” So wrote United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, in his 1914 book critical of the concentration of power in banks and financial institutions, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It.

Over a century later, sunlight is experiencing a resurgence in popularity as a disinfectant through the concept of radical transparency. This movement towards greater transparency is increasingly being adopted by a wide range of businesses from the technology, legal and environmental sectors as well as the banking and finance sector that motivated Brandeis’ book. 

The movement has received a surge of attention in recent years due to policies promoted by pioneers like Ray Dalio, the founder of asset management firm Bridgewater Associates. Dalio sought to improve decision making by encouraging all employees to express their opinions freely about all aspects of the business, creating what he calls an “idea meritocracy”, where the best ideas rise to the surface.  

Other pioneers include the US media streaming company, Netflix, and Finnish software consultancy, Reaktor, both of which have implemented wide ranging radical transparency policies covering everything from wage transparency to radical candour in internal communications to releasing employee emails to the public. 

And the idea is growing in its appeal. The 2018 Future of Work Study, commissioned by online communications platform Slack, found that “80% of workers want to know more about how decisions are made in their organization and 87% want their future company to be transparent”. 

However, there’s no single definition or implementation of radical transparency and it is employed in different ways in different contexts, and each has its own ethical implications. 

The virtue of openness

In its broadest sense, transparency simply means openness, especially when it comes to revealing and sharing information. What makes it “radical” is when information that was previously closely guarded is systematically opened up to a wider audience, whether that’s within the organisation or without.  

The primary ethical virtues of radical transparency are that it improves accountability and prevents corruption, in the sense of the improper use of power.

A culture of radical transparency not only makes it harder to conceal wrongdoing or compromising information, it also encourages a greater sense of honesty in dealings with others because of the anticipation that all information about those dealings will be revealed.  

Radical transparency can also help counteract some of the power dynamics that influence decision making within organisations, whereby individuals might be reluctant to challenge the ideas and opinions of their leaders. A culture of radical transparency can improve decision making, as is claimed by Bridgewater, but also encourage people to speak up if they see something they believe is inappropriate. 

Another form is wage transparency, which can promote fairness by giving employees more bargaining power in negotiations, placing them on a more even informational playing field with the employers. This is especially beneficial for those who are less inclined towards aggressive negotiation and can help counteract biases based on gender, racialisation and disability. 

In an environment where trust in institutions, government and business is increasingly strained, radical transparency directed towards the public can serve to rebuild some of that trust. More organisations are laying bare information such as their employee diversity data, the results of internal or independent reviews – such as conducted by The Ethics Centre on behalf of the Australian Olympic Committee in 2017 – or details of their supply chains and environmental record.  

Virtues and vices

Openness is a virtue. However, as Aristotle pointed out, any virtue taken to extreme can become a vice, and pushing transparency into “radical” territory steers it towards several ethical pitfalls and trade-offs that can easily be overlooked. 

For a start, transparency sits in natural tension with privacy. Privacy is not just about restricting access to information but it can be thought of as the right of each individual to exercise some control over their personal information. This means they should have some power to choose whether or not to reveal their personal information. Some examples of radical transparency, such as wage transparency or the sharing of internal emails, can violate that right to privacy. 

Privacy also enables us to protect ourselves from those who might use our personal information in bad faith to exclude, discriminate or persecute us. Radical transparency risks bleeding over into the personal space, such as if health, sexuality or religious attitudes are revealed that have no bearing on someone’s professional performance but which could expose them to unjust persecution. 

One of the goals of radical transparency is to promote trust, but ironically it can also work to undermine it.

There are many kinds of special trusted relationships that are dependent on privacy, such as the relationship between patient and doctor or priest and parishioner. Should these conversations be made open, many people would end up concealing information for fear that it would be made public.  

While no-one is suggesting radical transparency in the doctor’s surgery quite yet, it underscores that transparency in inappropriate contexts can actually cause people to suppress information rather than share it. There is already evidence that some workers in radically transparent workplaces change their behaviour to conceal information from their peers and act in a performative way that will be seen in a favourable light by others even if it’s not productive. 

Trust in others is something that is learnt and must be cultivated through experience and practice. Should radical transparency seek to make trust redundant by making all information public, there is a risk that the virtue of trust will atrophy. This represents a real ethical risk should those individuals return to a less transparent environment where the virtue of trust is required once again. 

Respectfully disagree

Radical transparency also requires an organisation to establish appropriate norms and culture in order to execute it in a safe and non-toxic way. In many instances, we modulate how we speak, how honest we are and what information we share on the basis of the relationships we have and the respect we owe to the other parties. In many contexts, deference, sensitivity or an ethic of care – or just the norms of good manners – trump candour, such as when we are speaking to a senior or vulnerable individual.  

If we have implicit norms that promote deference to senior management, for example, or that encourage us to be sensitive towards a colleague who has just lost their job, these can come into conflict with the norms of radical transparency. There are accounts of employees feeling tremendous awkwardness when they’re thrust into radically transparent meetings where they’re expected to criticise managers or give reasons why a colleague should be fired.  

It can take considerable time and effort to change the norms of discourse within the workplace to enable something like Dalio’s “meritocracy of ideas” in a way that is not overly confronting, where people feel like disagreement is tantamount to a personal attack.

These norms require that people feel respected, secure and safe to speak, which can also be threatened if radical transparency is executed poorly. 

If implemented in a targeted and systemic way, radical transparency can deliver considerable ethical benefits in terms of elevating trust, improving decision making and encouraging constructive disagreement. But the most radical and hasty implementations carry serious ethical risks. Arguably, the point of the radical transparency movement is not to continually drive towards ever greater levels of transparency in every domain but to make openness an ethical norm that is, itself, no longer radical.