2nd March 2014
Readers of this blog will know that transparency, integrity and plain old honesty are very dear to me. The importance of transparency has been raised time and time again during the unfolding of the CRC and Rehab stories. Without in any way defending what those organisations have put their beneficiaries, the broader charity sector and the general public through over the past few months, I do think there are some important bigger questions that we need to ask ourselves.
Before doing so, let us be clear about the concept. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word transparent in a number of different ways, the most pertinent of which in this particular context is “easy to perceive or detect … open to public scrutiny”.
Who do we want to be transparent?
Just ‘others’ or are we prepared to be transparent ourselves? Just charities, because they receive some tax benefits for performing their functions in the public good? What about the public sector, which by its very nature should be about public benefit, and which - unlike the NGO sector - depends in its entirety on taxpayers’ money? And what about the commercial sector, which may be deemed ‘private’ but which nonetheless benefits from tax breaks, often to values which are substantially higher than those in the ‘not-for-profit’ sector?
What do we want them to be transparent about?
Just salary and compensation packages, or potentially a whole rake of other, arguably more important issues (not least whether or not they are actually making any measurable difference)? And why the focus on CEO salaries? Of course the CEO salary signals an important message and without doubt there are CEOs who earn ridiculous amounts of money, but the likelihood of finding that highly-paid CEO is far greater outside the charity world. 'Charitocracy' is a cool headline grabber, but doesn’t really bear out in reality, as NGO salary research by The Wheel has shown. Personally, I find the ratio between what the CEO earns in relation to what the most junior member of staff earns a lot more telling about the culture of any organisation. For organisations that have paid staff, salaries do tend to make up the bulk of expenditure, but I am just as interested in how they use of the rest of their resources, where they get their money from in the first place, and how much of it is kept in reserves.
How do we want them to be transparent?
Is it simply a question of putting some information on an organisation's website or is it about getting recognition for transparency from an outside body? One can argue about the merits, or otherwise, of new initiatives like Boardmatch Ireland’s Transparency Scale or the Accounting For Charity service. I believe that transparency is far more than a tick-box exercise, however. It is about truly believing that there is more to be gained by operating in the open than in secret. It is about accepting that this may involve short-term pain but that the long-term benefits will be great. A commitment to transparency has to be infused in an organisation's culture, which is a process that takes courage and time.
Are we satisfied with simply knowing the results of decisions?
I was delighted to see a full and frank disclosure recently of the amount of money spent on external consultants by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I would like this level of detail to be readily accessible for any government department, for any state-sponsored agency, indeed for any organisation that receives public monies. And not just in relation to their use of third party service providers. I would like to know who works at the organisation, what their job title is and how I can contact them. I would like to know whom they serve, what they produce and whether any of that is making any iota of difference to the quality of life for this country’s citizens. Is that too much to ask?
Do we not also want to know how decisions are made?
I know I do. I have absolutely no problem with considerable amounts of money and time being spent on anything, provided that I can rest assured that the decisions to invest those resources were properly debated and made in a sound manner. I want to know who is making the decisions and on what basis. For example, we need far greater transparency in appointment processes, procurement, grant-making and decisions about funding cuts.
What will we do with the information once we have it?
Let us optimistically assume that there will be far greater transparency from here on in, possibly via a movement led by progressive charities. Then what? How will it change the way we operate? Once we have accessed the information, we still need to make sense of it. This may very well mean challenging long-held beliefs and confronting uncomfortable truths. Are we as a society ready to do this? I am not so sure, as evidenced by recent political controversies, the downgrading of Freedom of Information powers and the quick manner in which data protection legislation and/or 'commercial sensitivity' and/or insurance concerns are used to defend not making information more readily available to the public.
There are exceptions of course and these give me hope. There are some fabulous examples of all types of people and organisations the world over that are prepared to be transparent, including writer Patrick Wensink, social media company Buffer, donor analysis charity GiveWell, The Foundation Center's GrantCraft initiative and, closer to home, Irish NGO Spunout. Another example comes from the UK, where local government is now required to be increasingly transparent. This list is no way representative but shows that it can be done.
Finally, people often mention transparency and charity regulation in the same breath. I have high hopes for the new Charity Regulator, but am not sure that people’s expectations of what she will be able to deliver in terms of full transparency are realistic. And of course, let us not confuse transparency with either quality or social impact. Whilst transparent organisations are probably more likely to run quality organisations and deliver high-impact services, that is not necessarily true. Hmmm, now there’s an idea for some interesting research …
Earlier news stories
Elation, pride, relief: these are just some of the feelings that I have been experiencing over the past few days....
"Are we paying for that?" is the provocative title of the Advocacy Initiative's latest report, authored by Brian Harvey and...
Tis the season to be jolly. A time of peace and goodwill to our fellow men and women. The month...
It’s been a bad week or two for Ireland’s charity sector. The poor practices of one large organisation have fuelled...
Times are tough for the average not-for-profit organisation. Yet ... there are plenty of untapped resources out there. Individual giving...