Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?
It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.
To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*
One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.
However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.
In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.
A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.
In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.
First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.
Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.
Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.
Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.
Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.
Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.
The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.
** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule