Meet our trustees: Jane Wales

The OpenCorporates Trust is the entity that guarantees OpenCorporates’ public-benefit mission and ensures we always operate to open up company data for the public good.

One of our trustees is Jane Wales, a leading figure in philanthropy, government and journalism. Jane is the founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum and Vice President of the Aspen Institute. She held senior US government roles, including as Senior Director of the National Security Council. She led the World Affairs Council and hosted the NPR programme “WorldAffairs”.

Tell us about your background?

I have spent my career going back and forth between government service and the social sector more broadly, so I have experience of practice and theory. When you look at the roles of the private, public and social sectors, you can see how the mantle of leadership can be passed between them to solve problems.

Both in government and in philanthropy I frequently found situations in which the philanthropic and non-profit sector generated fresh ideas, demonstrated what works and handed tested innovations to governments for wider application – so that the risk-taking falls on the social sector and the execution falls on governments, which are typically less able to take risks. 

How does this background inform your role with OpenCorporates?

From my experience of working in the public and social sectors, I can clearly see that the private sector is taking on an increasingly public role in contributing to the social good. That means accountability in the private sector is as important as it is for governments.

Where private companies operated on the global stage they’ve been in a position to export environmental and labour standards to other countries where they had operations. So the private sector has long played a social role beyond creating jobs and wealth. With complex problems like climate change, endemic poverty or the current pandemic, companies have a powerful role to play in finding solutions.

Why do you support OpenCorporates?

Trust and accountability in the private, public and social sectors are essential elements of an effective democracy. So OpenCorporates’ purpose strikes me as fundamental to effective governance and problem-solving.

The other reason I support OpenCorporates is that it is a social enterprise, similar to the relatively new “B Corporation” in the US. OpenCorporates is an important innovation and I am thrilled to be part of it.

What is the future potential of OpenCorporates?

I think OpenCorporates can advance a normative change.  

An assumption and standard of transparency can be set not by one actor trying to play ‘gotcha’, but by trying to improve governance more broadly across state, multi-state and intergovernmental actors. This new standard of transparency will serve us all well going forward.

OpenCorporates’ model is sustainable as it is becoming the go-to place for publicly available company information to be aggregated and provided in a usable form to journalists, advocates and many others who have an interest in it.

What does a future without OpenCorporates, and open data, look like?

It seems to me that openness and transparency, which are necessary for building trust and allowing governments to function effectively, are the key to maintaining a liberal democracy. 

One of my greatest worries is the possibility that liberal democracies will slide into illiberalism. We are seeing that around the world, including in the US, where trust has been in decline for decades. In my view, the answer to this problem is the capacity of the public, private and social sectors to work together. 

Trust and transparency are at the core of that collaboration.

Are you noticing any trends which will make OpenCorporates’ work more important?

As the private sector’s social role grows so does the importance of OpenCorporates. And that increased role is apparent.

First, we are finding that the hardest problems – climate, pandemics, even poverty – are best solved by the combination of all three sectors, in partnership.

Second, we are seeing increased efforts to leverage capital markets to achieve social goals, with impact investing, being one example, immunization bonds another. It is now taken so seriously that major traditional market actors are moving in. 

Third, OpenCorporates has a role to play in advancing the norm of “stakeholder capitalism” especially in these early days. Stakeholders, whether consumers, employees or the communities in which companies have their operations will trust those companies with models and practices that are known, and that are not in the shadows.

How can we ensure company data is open for all?

It is all about how norms are established. As individual corporations choose to be open, they will be seen more positively by the general public and consumers than their competitors that choose not to be so open. Openness and transparency are values that mean something to consumers, employees and the communities in which they operate. That is one of the ways normative change will happen.

I don’t see any resistance to this trend towards openness. We are talking about publicly available data that is not necessarily easily accessed. It is a question of aggregating publicly-available data and putting it into a usable form. 

Openness will first become an expectation, then a habit and then a norm.

How will the ‘new normal’ created by Covid-19 affect how important open company data is?

Once the acute phase of the pandemic is behind us, in my view we will be unlikely to return to status quo ante. People will start to rethink the nature of our democracy and the structure of our economies. They will ask if this is the world we want to see. 

I can picture a re-imagination of capitalism and of the social contract, leading to more public-benefit corporations so that the private sector can play its role in a rebalanced social contract. In order to play that role, it needs to be a trusted, transparent and accountable actor. That is where open company data comes in.

How do you spend your spare time?

I find I am valuing two things even more during the shutdown we have experienced because of the pandemic. The first is the importance of community and connection. A video call is now a more welcome experience than a conference call where you cannot see your colleague, friend or family member in person. After this, we will greatly appreciate being able to get together with friends any time to do something purpose-driven, fun or both. 

Second, I am enjoying the beauty of a walk outdoors and appreciating every aspect of what nature has to offer. It turns out that extra hour at the computer does not necessarily add to efficiency and output, whereas the walk just might.

Want to know more?

Find out more about the OpenCorporates Trust.

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