As much as I hate using “gate” moniker, I want to discuss what is being called “Cablegate” because its ramifications for organizational life.
If you’ve been leaving beneath your bed for the last few weeks, you may not know that Cablegate refers to the release of thousands of secret State Department communications by Wikileaks. Here is good synopsis of the lead by Time Magazine.
Wikileaks first came onto the world’s radar screen by posting a video of American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians. This is whistleblowing. The American military it appears had done a terrible thing and then covered it up. This is what journalists do, they uncover the bad things that companies and governments do and shed light on them. Daniel Ellsberg is one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers, having released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times to reveal the lies that the US government was telling the public about their administration of the war in Vietnam.
Cablegate isn’t whistleblowing, it isn’t righting a wrong, unveiling unethical or immoral behavior. It is the theft of regular communications that makes it nearly impossible for the State Department to function.
One of the smartest people I know, well, actually one of the smartest people anywhere, Esther Dyson, discussed the downside of what she called “radical transparency” at Transparency Camp last year a double edged sword for organizational leaders. Beth Kanter reported Esther saying at the camp, “Esther Dyson said that transparency should be able the results and any deals, but there is a place for private discussion. “We could all go around naked and look like angels, but in the real world that doesn’t happen.” Transparency has its benefits, but so does privacy. As Esther Dyson said, “There is a need for respect – of relationships, to get trust, and further understandings. You can’t be fully transparent all the time because you need to give people a safe place to have the discussion without disrespecting others.”
And there is why I respectfully disagree with my friend and colleague, Micah Sifry, who wrote yesterday on his blog on TechPresident, “…there is a danger rising both to internet freedom and open government here, but that is not because of Wikileaks. It is because people who are threatened by more transparency want to stop this trend before it is completely uncontrollable.”
Leaks like Cablegate might be inevitable, however they are not honorable or constructive. Street crime might be inevitable but that doesn’t make it right. It also makes the word of transparency advocates, like Micah, much harder because it masks the true beauty and value of transparency which is to enable outsiders to get in and insiders to get out in order to make the work or product or law better. Transparency is not an academic exercise or window dressing for show, when done well and right, for instance in the ways that the Sunlight Foundation works, it makes the work better. Releasing every day cables of conversations within the State Department doesn’t make anything better, it just makes the work harder to do at all, much less do well.
The leakers, including Wikileaks, should be punished for it. How is any organization or government agency supposed to do business, to wrestle with complicated situations where the answers aren’t clear cut, in other words deal with the world as it is, if every conversation, every thought, every musing is going to be public.
The shame as Micah points out is that this kind of behavior provides cover for anti-transparency forces to have an excuse to become more opaque. They would would head in that direction anyway. News organizations should not have printed these leaks, it wasn’t news, it was a crime.
OK, folks, start disagreeing now!