The events of the past couple of weeks provide a compelling reminder of what it means to live in an age of transparency. Transparency means everything an organization does, says, and thinks is ultimately going to be subject to public scrutiny. It means organizations had better behave as if every decision they make will one day end up as the lead story in The New York Times or on CNN.
That's a theme I've long used in articles and speeches, but recently people have questioned it, usually by pointing to the Bush administration - probably the least transparent executive branch of the past 20 or 30 years. The opacity of the Bush White House appeared to undermine my belief that transparency is inevitable.
From the day it took office, the Bush administration has imposed a level of secrecy the US hasn't seen since Watergate. The vice president created an energy task force consisting of energy firms that did business behind closed doors and then asserted executive privilege when asked for information about its conduct. The administration also concealed information about possible health risks posed by debris from the World Trade Center attacks. Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed past interpretations of the Freedom of Information Act, essentially urging agencies to look for reasons not to release requested information. And the White House - including the president - consistently hindered the commission probing the 9/11 attacks.
The code of omerta was enforced with utter ruthlessness (and, it should be said, with the cooperation of a compliant media). As Paul Krugman pointed out in The New York Times, "When Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV revealed that the 2003 State of the Union speech contained information known to be false, someone in the White House destroyed his wife's career by revealing that she was a CIA operative." The administration also threatened would-be Medicare whistleblower Richard Foster with dismissal, as Krugman noted.
But in the age of transparency, such tactics can only delay the inevitable, and the inevitable happened last week, when former terrorism czar Richard Clarke appeared on 60 Minutes to provide a firsthand account of the administration's failures in the war on terror. The Bush administration before Clarke was like Enron before Sherron Watkins and other whistleblowers. It had been fooled by its very success into believing that it was immune to the laws of transparency.
(Bill Clinton never understood transparency either. If he did, he'd never have expected to get away with molesting Monica in the Oval Office.)
The lesson for communicators: You might be able to delay transparency, but, ultimately, you can't contain information completely.