Could Philanthropy Advance Financial Accountability in the US?

Wired Mag.jpgWired Magazine is always far ahead of the curve, no less so with an article in the current issue called "Road Map for Financial Recovery: Radical Transparency Now!" It offers up an incredible opportunity for some major foundation or donor to make sure that, should we ever emerge from the current financial crisis, a data-armed citizenry will be empowered to make sure it doesn't happen again. Here's how Wired sees it:

...the volume of data obscures more than it reveals; financial reporting has become so transparent as to be invisible. Answering what should be simple questions—how secure is my cash account? How much of my bank's capital is tied up in risky debt obligations?—often seems to require a legal degree, as well as countless hours to dig through thousands of pages of documents. Undoubtedly, the warning signs of our current crisis—and the next one!—lie somewhere in all those filings, but good luck finding them.

Even the regulators can't keep up. A Senate study in 2002 found that the SEC had managed to fully review just 16 percent of the nearly 15,000 annual reports that companies submitted in the previous fiscal year; the recently disgraced Enron hadn't been reviewed in a decade. We shouldn't be surprised. While the SEC is staffed by a relatively small group of poorly compensated financial cops, Wall Street bankers get paid millions to create new and ever more complicated investment products. By the time regulators get a handle on one investment class, a slew of new ones have been created. "This is a cycle that goes on and on—and will continue to get repeated," says Peter Wysocki, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "You can't just make new regulations about the next innovation in financial misreporting."

That's why it's not enough to simply give the SEC—or any of its sister regulators—more authority; we need to rethink our entire philosophy of regulation. Instead of assigning oversight responsibility to a finite group of bureaucrats, we should enable every investor to act as a citizen-regulator. We should tap into the massive parallel processing power of people around the world by giving everyone the tools to track, analyze, and publicize financial machinations. The result would be a wave of decentralized innovation that can keep pace with Wall Street and allow the market to regulate itself—naturally punishing companies and investments that don't measure up—more efficiently than the regulators ever could.

What if, rather than waiting on government to facilitate such a system, philanthropy were to enable it? (I'm assuming that it would be all but impossible for a private company to pull together the massive number of intellectual property elements and advance regulation to ensure common reporting.) I'd look to Beth Novak who is assisting the US Patent office in its efforts to revamp with her Democracy Design Workshop.)

A precedent for this type of work comes from the Sunlight Foundation which states its goal is " use the power of the Internet to shine a light on the interplay of money, lobbying, influence and government in Washington in ways never before possible." (Sunlighters, can you get on the Amtrak and slip over to Wall Street?)

The Council on Foundations is one of the organizations whose leaders have spent time brainstorming what I consider to be self-promotional, self-serving ways we might increase the visibility of philanthropy. How about if we took on challenges like this one which are killing all of us? Viva Radical Transparency Now!

Susan Herr

Posted at 1:50 AM, Mar 13, 2009 in Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink