Experience level: 
Intermediate
Intended Audience: 
All
Authors: 
Itzel PALOMARES-AGUIRRE

FOREGROUND, BACKGROUND, AND THE TRANSPARENCY ISSUE

As part of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the private sector has been called for taking an active role in implementing the 17 SDGs. In a guide for accountability of the private sector, it is mentioned that “… it may be necessary to find ways to engage the private sector without threatening progress towards the inclusive, sustainable world we want. A shift towards more accountable business behavior would have a dramatic effect on the world’s ability to achieve the SDGs” (TAP Network, 2018). The path towards accountability goes first through transparency. Are firms “transparent enough” to be held accountable? There is a difference between accountability and transparency. According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors (2019), accountability is made up of two components: answerability (providing information about one’s actions) and enforcement (accepting consequences of one’s actions). However, for accountability to happen, transparency must come first. Transparency is defined as a “characteristic of governments, companies, organizations and individuals of being open in the clear disclosure of information, rules, plans, processes and actions” (Transparency International, 2021). Thus, the central element for accountability to happen is disclosure. Although full disclosure is good for transparency and thus for accountability, firms might find it difficult to open themselves to the eyes of the public. With strategic management, firms look for ways to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. This element is thought as something that will set them aside from their competitors and give them an edge. It is through creating advantages that firms will “win”, so the series of actions taken by firms is not open for public scrutiny. However, firms are facing calls from different external stakeholders to become more transparent, that is, to share more of what is kept out of sight. Why is it so rare that firms disclose more than what they are obligated to do? We contend that firms operate in two spaces: the foreground and the background. We present a firm behavior model that is an adaptation of Goffman’s theatrical metaphor of two spaces: 1) frontstage, where individuals behave according to the accepted rules, and 2) backstage, where individuals are invisible, and thus can behave in unacceptable ways. We contend that firms, like individuals have two different sets of behaviors, depending if the action is happening in the foreground or in the background, and who is the audience. These two spaces have different rules, thus if we want firms to become transparent, it is important to recognize how they influence firm behavior. In this paper we propose a theoretical model that will allow for such understanding. We believe this is a first step into creating strategies and public policy that encourage firms to become transparent, and as a result accountable.