[Foundation-l] transparency or translucency?

Erik Moeller erik at wikimedia.org
Sat Jan 10 20:10:50 UTC 2009

2009/1/10 James Rigg <jamesrigg1974 at googlemail.com>:
> Hi
> This is my first post to this list - I'm a thirtysomething newbie from
> England. After using Wikipedia for years without getting involved, I
> thought I should look more closely into how it all works - and
> possibly even join the project! However, as a strong believer in the
> importance of transparency to any organisation

I am increasingly concluding that the concept of organizational
transparency can only be fully understood if one considers the concept
of organizational responsiveness an important accompanying principle
(whether one believes this to be an inherent subset of transparency or
not). I consider them separate: it is possible to publish
organizational internals but to never engage in dialogue; it is
possible to engage in dialogue but to not publish facts.

Moreover, I believe that in order to best serve the public interest,
both principles are necessary. Transparency, by itself, can facilitate
necessary organizational changes if organizational flaws are made
visible through media and the legal system. This, typically, only
affects the deepest organizational flaws, and if the organization is
not itself responsive to questions regarding its general practices, it
is meaningless for most practical purposes. Moreover, poorly
articulated raw information can lead to damaging misunderstandings
which remain uncorrected.

As a practical example, we spent a lot of time this year drafting Q&As
for documents like the Annual Plan and the Audited Financial
Statements, to help people understand the meaning thereof. In
addition, we are actively engaged in discussions like this one: many
staff members and Board members participate in mailing lists with
stakeholders (some of those lists are open to the general public, some
of them have principles under which access is granted).

In this basic understanding, it's important to recognize that an
organization's ability to respond to questions is not unlimited. In
fact, it is highly limited (which was exactly the point of the phrase
"23-people-organization" in an earlier e-mail of mine). While most
people understand this principle in theory, in practice, any
individual petitioner will often feel that surely their argument is
important enough, surely their e-mail or request significant enough,
to be heard and carefully responded to. When this is not the actual
outcome, they will feel deeply injured by this neglect. That is human
nature from the cradle to the grave.

An organization's ability to publish information in any meaningful
fashion (i.e. with explanations that make it actually useful) is, of
course, equally limited. With thousands of people taking an interest
in organizational affairs, it is almost inevitable that some question
will not have been anticipated, and some fact will not have been

Where an organization's limits are is partially determined by its
overall human bandwidth, and partially by its allocation of internal
resources to publishing information and responding to stakeholders.
Does every staff member spend one hour a day on it? 4 hours? 8 hours?
Ultimately the organization must weigh the public service it performs
through its actual work against the important, but separate, function
of talking about it.

Finally, there are limits to transparency which are not just
defensible but in fact ethically necessary (privacy of individual
human beings) or simply practical (most businesses and organizations
don't operate at very high levels of transparency, and an organization
is not an island - it has to be able to deal with other people's
expectations in a reasonable manner in order to function).

In sum,
* I believe transparency and organizational responsiveness must go hand in hand;
* both are limited by an organization's capacity and must be balanced
with its other priorities;
* both are further limited by both ethical and practical considerations.

Where the Wikimedia Foundation is concerned, I consider it to be doing
a pretty good job, but I hope we can publish and share even more
information, and respond even more consistently, in the future. I know
that WMF policies and documents, even its fundraising pages, are used
as examples and templates by other non-profits, and I'd love to see
more of that happening.

I would be interested to hear about organizations that are weighing
and using their own resources in a fashion that better serves the
public interest. I don't think WMF is a fully mature organization yet
- we've only just gone through a year of "growing up" - but I would
love to see it collaborate with other organizations and OD experts in
eventually developing and evolving sets of best practices for
organizations which support purpose-driven communities.
Erik Möller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

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