Imagine if your tax returns were online for everyone to check. (Oh, wait, they already are.)

In Norway, tax returns are publicly accessible by law. That means you have the right to see your neighbor’s tax returns (or anyone else’s, for that matter). Of course, nobody bothered to check his neighbor’s tax returns. Until put the entire database of tax returns online. Some Norwegian citizens were outraged, but what exactly had changed? In legal terms, nothing. It was just that technology made the tax returns radically transparent.

The Norwegian tax returns are still open to the public today, despite the brouhaha. A concession was made to the Norwegian citizens: the site is accessible to Norwegians only (one wonders how many non-Norwegians would bother to check Norwegian tax returns). So today, you need a login and password to access the database. But once you get in, you can still browse your neighbor’s tax returns at your leisure. And your bosses’, family’, friends’ tax returns. And if you don’t like it: that’s too bad. It’s the new reality.

An interesting if provocative thought about it is this: you might not want to have your tax return visible for the entire country, but at least the data cannot be stolen. No costs have to be made to secure the system.

Oil spill, data spill

Compared to a decade ago, or even a few years ago, there is exponentially more data flowing around the internet, and  exponentially more ways that we can manipulate the data. It may frighten some and make others hopeful, but it’s happening in any case. There is no reason to assume that this evolution will stop. So you could ask yourself: is there an end point to all this? It turns out there is: the point of Radical Transparency, when everything is completely transparent.

One of the great examples of the impact of being connected and of access to data is British Petroleum. When the Deepwater Horizon burst in 2010, you could watch the oil spill 24 hours a day on-line. It was fascinating to see the developments in the corner of your desktop. BP tried to control damage by understating the disaster, but it was to no avail: internet users could see the opposite for themselves. Whatever BP said, people had all necessary information to form their own opinion.

Radical Transparency is not only a digital or technological phenomenon. With so much digital information available to peruse and analyse, we also expect brick and mortar institutions to open up to our probing. Some companies understand this. Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the most elite luxury company of the world and not exactly renowned for its openness, opened all farms and factories for one day to the public. Even within companies that always had secrecy as a core value, a transformation takes place, enabling them to communicate with their audience and to make new connections.

Take out the middle man

Radical Transformation also empowers ourselves. We can all be an expert and an advisor. Travel sites offer review options for everybody to rate restaurants and hotels. Blogging makes everyone a journalist. Who needs the middleman?

Companies need to learn from all this. Reputations are more easily destroyed than built. Some know how to turn damage into gain. On social media platform Hyves somebody made a critical remark on Transavia (the plane was late). Transavia’s rapid response team reacted quickly and gave an explanation on the delay. Once the customer learned about this, he changed his mind and was quite happy with the quick reaction, and said so.

For companies, governments, customers and citizens Radical Transparency offers opportunities and challenges. Many questions need an answer: how to behave on social media, what information to make public, what information to protect.

Being for or against Radical Transparency is not of much use: it’s simply happening, making our lives at the same times easier and more complicated.

How does your company or organisation make the shift to the age of Radical Transparency?

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About the author

Farid Tabarki

Farid Tabarki is the founder and director of Studio Zeitgeist which conducts research and develops projects on the local, national and European Zeitgeist. Studio Zeitgeist works on themes like radical decentralisation, radical transparency, (social) media, Europe, generations, aesthetics, social entrepreneurship and education. Farid was a keynote speaker and/or moderator at numerous international conferences. In March 2012 Farid was awarded the Trendwatcher of the Year 2012 – 2013 award. Follow Farid and Studio Zeitgeist on Twitter: @studiozeitgeist.

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