“Trust, but verify.” This Russian proverb was made famous during the 1980s when Ronald Reagan used it to describe the process of ensuring compliance with mutual nuclear disarmament by the USSR and the United States. The safety of the planet relied on transparency between two powerful and apprehensive nations; relying on both disclosure of information and verifiable evidence to develop trust.
Today, the issues commanding America’s attention look different than nuclear war. Economic inequality, environmental degradation, unaffordable housing, healthcare, and education are the new faces of “mutually assured destruction,” as these issues pose a threat to our nation’s progress and safety. However, transparency can still serve as a potent antidote to these evolving crises. Individuals equipped with reliable information about the causes of social and economic obstacles can begin taking measures to reverse or overcome them. However, just because the rate at which information is being created in the 21st century is accelerating does not mean there has been a proportionate rise in transparency.
As misinformation becomes more popular, and cover ups and corruption are routinely discovered in organizations around the world, trust is in short supply. According to a Pew Research Center Study, Americans are less trusting of institutions than they have ever been, and the majority believe that government and news media withhold important information from the public that could safely be released. This absence of transparency has driven populism, divisiveness, the loss of faith in historically credible institutions, and has threatened collective goals and public services. If trust is to be restored, it begins with transparency. In the more than 30 years since Reagan popularized “trust, but verify,” its importance has not dwindled. To address the problems of the 21st century, citizens and institutions need to trust one another; Building trust requires verification. A first step towards achieving greater transparency might be to define new guidelines on how best to determine the accuracy of information. Standards for claims and evidence should be proposed, refined, and collectively agreed upon so that all individuals and organizations can hold each other accountable to the truth. These guidelines should be created in a manner that ensures they are free from private interests and the risk of bias or corruption. Businesses, governments, and institutions are at an existential crossroads. As their credibility erodes, they must take the steps necessary to provide transparency, or they will meet a Darwinian fate. This transition to the Era of Transparency has already begun. I propose that every leader ask themselves a simple question: “Is this transformation going to happen to me, or because of me?”