Posts

Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Transparency, most of us would agree, is a positive thing.  And disclosure is an obvious way to get there.

But transparency and disclosure are not the same thing. And confusing them can actually harm transparency.

So – what’s the difference between disclosure and transparency?

Transparency and Trust

Besides “able to transmit light,” the dictionary defines transparent as:

  • easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.
  • manifest; obvious: a story with a transparent plot.

In the simplest business terms, “transparent” means you can tell what’s going on.

If the link between transparency and trust isn’t self-evident, here are a few citations to help clarify it:

If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed. Transparency is indeed a trust virtue.

Disclosure

Disclosure is a time-honored tool of regulators to achieve transparency. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients, medical authors are required to reveal payment sources, the SEC frequently proposes disclosure as a tool, and so on.

Certainly you can’t find out what’s going on if information is actually hidden.  So disclosure is a necessary condition for transparency. But it’s hardly a sufficient one.

I don’t have much to say about the cost/benefit trade-off of greater disclosure in pursuit of transparency. Sometimes the benefit is obvious, other times not so much, sometimes not at all.

What’s more interesting to me is how the blind pursuit of disclosure can actually reduce transparency – even reduce people’s awareness of the distinction.

Over-Disclosure

Is it possible to have too much disclosure? So much disclosure that information gets lost in the blizzard of data?

On the face of it, disclosure is the handmaiden of transparency. But if disclosure becomes the end rather than the means, if regulators and consumer advocates become fixated on indicators rather than on what they indicate, then disclosure can actually become self-defeating.

Lawyers know that massive responses to discovery requests can overwhelm opposing counsel. Cheating spouses know that the best lies are those that disclose the most truth. Consumer lenders know to fast-talk the disclaimers at the end of radio ads, much like the small print on the ads and loan statements.

If disclosure isn’t accompanied by an ethos of transparency, it can be positively harmful. It is like crossing your fingers behind your back, taking movie reviews out of context, or word parsing a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A trustworthy person, team or company will not settle for disclosure, but seek to offer transparency. A competent regulator will always remember that disclosure is just evidence, and partial evidence at that. And a wise buyer will always look for the spirit of transparency that may, or may not, underlie the act of disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.

 

Disclosure Is Not Transparency

Most people see transparency as a good thing, and disclosure an obvious way to get there.  Often, we don’t distinguish between them.

But they’re not the same thing. And confusing them just lets bad behavior sneak back in through the back door.

What’s the difference between disclosure and transparency?

Transparency and Trust

Besides “able to transmit light,” the dictionary defines transparent as:

  • easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.
  • manifest; obvious: a story with a transparent plot.

In the simplest business terms, “transparent” means you can tell what’s going on.

If the link between transparency and trust isn’t self-evident, here are a few citations to help clarify it:

If I can see what’s going on, I know that I am not being misled. Motives become clear. Credibility is affirmed. Transparency is indeed a trust virtue.

Disclosure

Disclosure is a time-honored tool of regulators to achieve transparency. Food and pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to disclose ingredients, medical authors are required to reveal payment sources, the SEC frequently proposes disclosure as a tool, and so on.

Certainly you can’t find out what’s going on if information is actually hidden.  So disclosure is a necessary condition for transparency. But it’s hardly a sufficient one.

I don’t have much to say about the cost/benefit trade-off of greater disclosure in pursuit of transparency. Sometimes the benefit is obvious, other times not so much, sometimes not at all.

What’s more interesting to me is how the blind pursuit of disclosure can actually reduce transparency – even reduce people’s awareness of the distinction.

Over-Disclosure

Is it possible to have too much disclosure? So much disclosure that information gets lost in the blizzard of data?

On the face of it, disclosure is the handmaiden of transparency. But if disclosure becomes the end rather than the means, if regulators and consumer advocates become fixated on indicators rather than on what they indicate, then disclosure can actually become self-defeating.

Lawyers know that massive responses to discovery requests can overwhelm opposing counsel. Cheating spouses know that the best lies are those that disclose the most truth. Consumer lenders know to fast-talk the disclaimers at the end of radio ads, much like the small print on the ads and loan statements.

If disclosure isn’t accompanied by an ethos of transparency, it can be positively harmful. It is like crossing your fingers behind your back, taking movie reviews out of context, or word parsing a la “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

A trustworthy person, team or company will not settle for disclosure, but seek to offer transparency. A competent regulator will always remember that disclosure is just evidence. And a wise buyer will always look for the transparency that may, or may not, underlie the disclosure.

Trust relies on both data and intent.

——————————————————————————————–

Many Trusted Advisor programs now offer CPE credits.  Please call Tracey DelCamp for more information at 856-981-5268–or drop us a note @ info@trustedadvisor.com.

Trust, Conflicts of Interest and Death Bonds

You trust your brother- in-law, and tell him you want to buy a used car. He says his cousin knows cars. You talk to his cousin, who recommends you buy a Saab. He finds you one; you buy it. All is good.

Then you learn the cousin is a used car dealer, and the car came from his inventory. Next, you learn your brother-in-law received a referral payment from his cousin for your business.

Now there are at least two people you trust a lot less. And the phrase “conflict of interest” becomes personal. But how, exactly, are the two related?

When I wrote (with Maister and Galford) The Trusted Advisor, we introduced the Trust Equation:

T = (C+R+I) / S, where
C=credibility, R=reliabilty, I=Intimacy, and S=self-orientation.

(To be precise, it’s a formula not for trust, but for trustworthiness of the one who would be trusted.)

The numerator factors are pretty clear. It’s the denominator that gets most readers’ interest, and rightly so—it’s the most powerful.
On a personal level, we trust someone if their focus and interest is about us: we do not trust them if their focus and interest is about themselves.

It’s why we’re sceptical of used-car dealers, telemarketers, and other stereotypes of sellers—people who clearly want our money, but less clearly have our interests at heart.

Conflicts of interest are fuel for the fire of self-orientation. How we choose as a society to deal with them says a lot about our view of government, and of humanity.

Arrayed in increasing order of social involvement:

Seven Responses to Conflicts of Interest: 

    by Level of Social Involvement

  1. Level one is caveat emptor. Society doesn’t have an interest compelling enough to create a solution beyond “deal with it.”
  2. Level two is ethical. Rely on collective shame heaped on used-car dealers to enforce behavior.
  3. A third is professional. The Association of Used Car Dealers should develop and enforce guidelines. (The Association for Brothers-in-Law is a less likely candidate for this approach).
  4. A fourth is enforcement. Vote for whatever district attorney will prosecute the hell out of the guilty parties using whatever laws are on the books.
  5. A fifth is required disclosure. As long as your brother in law and his cousin tell you their interests, the problem reverts to level 1.
  6. A sixth is regulatory. The National Used Car and Brother-in-Law Exchange Commission will do what the industry failed to do.
  7. Finally, there is structural reform. Separate the evil-doers so that they are not only free from temptation, but can never conspire to develop their nefarious schemes.

Society evolves. Big Tobacco went from level 1 to level 7 in mere decades. Sarbanes-Oxley was a level seven solution after many years at level three. Elliot Spitzer got elected governor of New York because of his activity at level four. Glass-Steagall’s repeal went from level seven back to levels five and lower.

Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin has been holding hearings about the pharmaceutical industry’s role in medical research; many researchers are funded by pharmaceutical industry money. The question is: what to do about it?

Kohl is inclined to recommend level five—disclosure. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association says leave it at level three. Doubtless there are other views covering the others.

The July 30 2007 cover story in BusinessWeek is about Death Bonds—securitized life insurance policies, the same thing we’ve seen with mortgage-backed securities. The idea is individuals can cash in their life insurance policies to investors, and benefit. Along with the investors. The sooner the insured dies, the faster the investor makes money.

Right now, 26 states require professional licensing for "life settlement brokers"—level six.  Several investment banks have founded the Institutional Life Markets Association to lobby for appropriate regulation—level three. New York is prosecuting Coventry First—level four.  (Data from the BW article.)

What is the right role of society in mitigating conflicts of interest to foster greater trust?