Radical Transparency

Transparency is the hallmark of good government, an antidote to corruption and a facilitator of openness, communication, and accountability. It is the metaphorical extension of the meaning used in the physical sciences – a “transparent” object is one that can be seen through.

In his new book, The Art and Practice of Court Administration, Alexander B. Aikman urges courts to be more transparent. He suggests that “leadership courts” are those that open their administrative decision-making to public input, scrutiny, and participation, and argues that the tradition of silence regarding judicial decisions need not be carried over to administrative decision-making.

So much for theory. Transparency in practice is another matter, especially when it comes to courts’ performance.

How Much Performance Information Should We Share?

This is a question that causes much hand-wringing among court leaders and managers.

Much of the resistance to performance measurement is based in fears that baring the court’s performance for all to see will hurt the court. Some resistance also comes from the belief that giving people information about shortfalls in a court’s performance will only raise unreasonable expectations that the shortfalls will be made up by those who produced the performance information. “Why give us this information if you’re not going to do anything about it?” they might ask.

Better to hold performance information tight and close. Better to be less than transparent.

The Naked Truth

Enter Wired magazine with the counterargument – get naked and rule the world with radical transparency. Clive Thompson, in the cover story of the April 2007 issue of Wired, writes why exposing oneself is the future of business. He tells the story of Glen Kelman, the newly hired CEO of Redfin, an online real estate brokerage firm.

Redfin was turning the real estate industry upside down by refunding two-thirds of the commission that real estate agents normally charge. Customers loved it but traditional real estate agents pushed back hard on Redfin. The blacklisted Redfin and refused to sell houses to anyone who used the service.

Kelman first decided to keep the pushback from agents quiet and to pretend that everything was OK. “We were really ashamed that our customers were getting pushed around, so we tried to keep this dirty little secret,” he said to Wired.

But when things did not improve, Kelman changed tactics. He set up a blog and told the naked truth about the real estate business, including Redfin’s internal debates and his own failures. When old-school real estate agents unleashed blistering attacks on Redfin, Kelman published the criticism and his responses in full view of the customers.

A funny thing happened. Customers loved it. More signed on to use Redfin’s services. “Instead of discouraging customers, being open about our problems radicalized them,” Kelman said. “They rallied and started pulling for us.”

Transparency as a Judo Move

According to Wired, Redfin’s form of radical transparency is today the norm of many startup – and even some Fortune 500 – companies. “Transparency is a judo move,” writes Wired’s Clive Thompson. “Your customers are going to poke around your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info – so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?”

Radical transparency goes much further than the open book management I recommended for use of court performance measurement in October last year. Conservative institutions that they are, perhaps courts should adopt an approach somewhere between open book management and radical transparency.

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