Notes from the President: Responsibility (Summer 2004 Trust Magazine article)

Notes from the President: Responsibility (Summer 2004 Trust Magazine article)

Americans have always been characterized as a pragmatic people: We get things done. "Yankee ingenuity" (not confined to New England, of course) starts with the assumption that we don't have to live with a problem but can find an answer--often a non-obvious solution, bred of many ingredients, including hope, common sense, technology, contributions from diverse disciplines and newly discovered stakeholders who are drawn into the effort.

The organizations that successfully and consistently rise to the challenge emerge as our leadership institutions. We look to them for vision and results, no matter which sector--for-profit, nonprofit, philanthropic or governmental--they may inhabit. 

But that's not all we want from these leaders. We also expect them to act with integrity, character and honesty as they work to serve the public interest. In turn, we and our partners must be accountable in our dealings and transparent about how we achieve our results. 

Unfortunately, every sector has some organizations that have failed to meet these standards. Whether through greed, simple thoughtlessness, lack of oversight or other internal checks, they disregarded the interest of their stakeholders and the public they serve. They stretched or even broke their own established rules of conduct for their own gains--and, in the process, lost both their reputation and their effectiveness and hopes for success. But even more tragic, they tainted the public's regard for entire sectors and the worthy organizations working hard to wisely steward their institutions and serve their constituents. 

This climate is distressing to The Pew Charitable Trusts. Our founders felt keenly their responsibility to earn and keep the public trust, holding the institution--and their successors, who lead the Trusts today--to the highest standards of accountability and transparency. We understand that a commitment to the public trust comes from a legacy of honesty, good governance and best practice that must be constantly re-earned by the quality of our work and the integrity with which we carry it out. 

In the political realm, the credibility and transparency by which our nation conducts elections is central to nurturing the public trust, since voting is the bedrock of our democracy--one of the "first principles" of government, as Thomas Paine put it, because the ballot "is the primary right by which other rights are protected." If people were to lose faith in the accountability of our election system, if they did not believe that our elections are free and fair, they would not vote--and the very system that underpins our participatory democracy would profoundly suffer. 

To help increase public trust, confidence and participation in our elections, the Trusts launched a major initiative in 1996 to reform the role of money in campaigns. Our investments were intended to encourage support for an incremental approach to campaign finance reform, based on solid, nonpartisan research and data and designed to bring varied, informed and compelling voices into the debate. 

We and other foundations worked with organizations across the political spectrum to provide information that would increase transparency and accountability in how campaigns are financed--critical ingredients to regain the public's trust. The development of model approaches was intended to help end the longstanding ideological impasse around campaign finance reform and attract sufficient public and policymaker support to this key issue. Now, in the era of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, we are supporting work to ensure that campaign laws are effectively implemented. 

Every sector, not only the political, must earn the public's confidence. Rapidly emerging, technologically complex areas, by virtue of being novel, raise important ethical, social and policy questions for us all. Those with responsibility for these innovations must work to assure us that they are acting with integrity and accountability--and must thoroughly explain to the public the importance and impact of their contributions. After all, the public must understand the topic in order to lend a wise voice to the policy decisions that affect it. 

Reproductive genetics is a timely example because, even as it clearly solves many problems, it also raises new and difficult choices for society to make. For while we as a nation may concur on the promise the scientific advances hold for preventing diseases, we are assuredly of many opinions on the ethical implications of the technology and on the sort of oversight that would give us confidence that its application is accountable and deserving of the public trust. 

The Genetics and Public Policy Center, a Trusts-supported project of Johns Hopkins University, provides well-considered policy options so that the public and policymakers can make educated choices on the use and future direction of the technologies involved in human reproduction. The Center's success is based on its independence and ability to provide objective, credible information and on its fostering of a deliberative environment for disparate points of view. 

In all of our efforts, the Trusts aims to serve the public interest, and we work--as an institution and with our partners--by holding ourselves to the highest standards of integrity, accountability and transparency. We act as though our reputational capital is always at stake--for indeed it is.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Genetics & Public Policy Center Web site or visit the Genetics and Public Policy Centeron