The first decision I took as the new CEO of Plan International was to open my calendar so all my colleagues could see my activities and book time with me directly, without going through a gate-keeper. I encouraged all senior executives across Plan International to do the same. It was a small step on a journey to transform Plan International into one of the most transparent and trusted players in the international development community. Judging by the reaction – which ranged from horror and shock to victory dances – we still have a long way to go, both internally and externally.
Openness to scrutiny matters for three reasons: those who fund us are demanding it, those who work for us need it to do their jobs better, and those we seek to serve can better influence our priorities for greater impact.
When faced with the transparency challenge the development sector is like the frog in water that is being slowly warmed up. The frog won’t save itself by jumping out because it doesn’t realise the temperature is getting life-threateningly hot.
Last month (January) the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing released a report that among other things called for aid organisations and donors to make the financial details of humanitarian assistance visible to inspection. The report, released ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit in May, said there should be a commitment to provide open data, including on transaction costs, which would be publishable on a single global platform, so as to reduce transaction costs and increase effectiveness.
It was the latest in a series of ever increasing demands for greater openness in the aid community. We recognise the gold standard for data openness is set by the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Yet like other international civil society organisations (ICSOs), only part of the Plan International family is publishing to IATI. This has to change. Organisations that resist scrutiny won’t stay in business.
But transparency is healthy in itself. By being open about how much it costs to administer ourselves or raise funds in different locations we set internal benchmarks and kick start vital discussions about where and how we operate.
Beneficiaries can monitor us too. By being more open to the girls that Plan International wants to empower we become more accountable to them. Their feedback can help us improve our programming impact as well. This two-way exchange transforms the power relationship between us.
And when donors and beneficiaries see us being honest and open about where we fail – an integral part of the risk-filled business of delivering development and humanitarian aid – important lessons can be learnt together.
With greater transparency comes greater trust, which is as essential for leading change internally as it is for good development impact. Employees want to be part of a workforce culture that places a premium on delivering the truth. As a leader being transparent is a powerful way to build buy-in, collective understanding and action. So sharing observations, aspirations and fears is a skill for leaders and leadership teams to practice and master over time.
Nor can staff make the swift decisions required for success in our fast-moving world without a way to access the right information. That means a new emphasis on knowledge sharing and smart internal communications for all 10,000 Plan International colleagues in over 70 locations.
In many organisations I’ve seen days wasted by staff who duplicated each other’s work because they did not realise they were all working on similar problems in different places. If only there had been a way to share information better!
The complex, interdependent challenges facing our world can only be overcome through swift adaptation and nimble responses. That requires fast and open flows of information so staff can co-create the solutions needed.
The water we live in is getting hotter. Time to jump out of the pot.