Increasingly in the news and media we hear reference to practices that promote transparency and accountability. While they may have become veritable buzzwords, and thus lost some of their punch, it is in the wake of important insights that these terms entered into common usage.
If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than the fact that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
These words, written by Lord Acton in April of 1877 in a letter to Mandell Creighton reflecting upon his failure to combat the promulgation by Pope Pius IX of the doctrine of papal infallibility, have become proverbial for expressing the need for greater transparency and accountability in power structures, whether they be businesses, governments, communities or movements.
The statement also represents one of the foundational insights of the American democratic experiment. Knowing that unchecked power was no longer a viable means of governing a nation, the founding fathers of American democracy realized that some measure of accountability would be required if there was to be hope for social stability in the long run. Consequently, as one of several limits to be built into the artifice of the American system, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States created the mechanisms of free speech, freedom of assembly, and the free press to help protect US citizens from corruption of power in its ruling bodies. The voice of the people, together with their right of access to any relevant information pertaining to their leaders, forms a primary means of gaining transparency and assuring accountability where we are reminded by Lord Acton’s dictum it will inevitably be needed.
The extent to which these measures are properly functioning today is questionable. There appears to be a high degree of secrecy in governments and business, and a diminished degree of determination on the part of journalists to fulfill their investigative role. Moreover, as the world continues to become more intricately enmeshed in the net we refer to as globalization, the issues of transparency and accountability have taken on an international dimension. In politics and business alike we are contending with corruption and abuses of power on a new scale.
On the front lines of the current battle is Peter Eigen, former director of the World Bank in Nairobi. In 1993 he founded an NGO called Transparency International, with the mission to fight against corruption in business and governments. Their Corruption Perceptions Index is used all over the world not only to identify need for political accountability, but by companies looking to gauge the risks of entering into new foreign markets and economies. Here is Eigen speaking at TEDxBerlin in 2010 on his vision for combating the life destroying abuses of power in the world today:
Over the past couple of years the debate on international transparency has become increasingly centered around the actions of WikiLeaks, an organization seeking to empower whistleblowers worldwide (they used to be called “muckrakers” in the world of journalism). Here is an interview from the 2010 TED Conference with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange:
It seems there is a pretty routinely two-sided reaction on the part of pundits and the public to these forces for transparency and accountability in the world, in particular within the US. From Daniel Ellsberg and Joseph Darby in the military to Sharon Watkins and Cynthia Cooper in corporate America, whistleblowers have all been viewed by different groups as heroes and villains alike. How, then, do we balance the need for more transparency with the seeming benefits of keeping at least some secrets?