PtG Article 05.04.2013

Sport must turn its culture of secrecy into a culture of transparency

There is growing pressure on organisations to be more transparent and open, but many sports organisations have not learned this lesson yet. In this video and text interview, which is a part of the AGGIS project on good governance led by Play the Game, senior consultant Frank van Eekeren from Utrecht University calls for a change in the culture of secrecy.

Video interview with Frank van Eekeren (click to watch)

This interview is an edited version of an original full-length video interview with Frank van Eekeren.

What does transparency mean?

“Transparency means, especially in the case of international sports federations, to make information available that allows external actors, who could be fans, media, sponsors, governments and athletes, to monitor the internal workings and performances of the organisations.

To be more specific there are three elements of transparency: you can have transparency about decision making, transparency about policy and transparency about the policy performances – the results of the policies. 

It is a general misunderstanding that transparency means providing as much information as possible, and an overload of information can in some cases be less transparent. The key for transparency is accurate information.”

What is the problem with not having a transparent organisation?

“First of all, you can see transparency as an intrinsic value in being a democratic and accountable organisation. But you could also see transparency as a means for an organisation to be trusted by the general public. 

In a more extreme way, the lack of transparency could lead to a lack of opposition to the ones that are in power, and a lack of opposition can lead to a misuse of power, financial mismanagement or even corruption. So transparency in a way is a value, but it is also a means to fight corruption.” 

How challenged are the international sports organisations when it comes to transparency?

“In general I would say there is much more pressure now on any organisation in the western society to be more transparent and open. There is a public trend that we want to get rid of the culture of secrecy.

But in a way this is not applicable to sports federations for two reasons: Firstly, external initiatives are missing. The main actors who could force the international sports federations to be more transparent are, in my opinion, the ones that provide the laws and the ones that provide the money.

Many international sports federations are based in Switzerland, which does not have very clear or tight regulations concerning transparency. And many sponsors, especially in hyper-commercial sports, are not really interested in changing anything because the sport delivers for their commercial purposes.

Secondly, the internal incentives are also missing. There is no self-reform because the ones who are in power have a lot of interest in keeping the situation as it is right now because it favours them.”

Could you give a couple of examples of where sports organisations could improve?

“On every aspect of transparency most international sports federations can improve. For instance, make sure that you have minutes of your board meetings completely published in a way, so we as outsiders can understand what's on paper.

Another example is the financial situation of the international sports federations. Where does the money come from, where does it go, and who is allowed to sign contracts? 

But to me, the greatest challenge is not the technical improvement of transparency. It is about changing the whole culture of secrecy into a culture of transparency. This has to be done by convincing the actors to be transparent because in the end, it will lead to better performance of the organisation.”

If you look ahead to the future, how do you think this area will develop and improve?

“I would say that in the end sports organisations will be more transparent. I am very positive about it, but we will need to make the incentives for them to be more transparent. This has to come from the inside of the organisation, but also from the outside, so people using the new AGGIS tool politicians and sponsors, put pressure on international sports federations and try to force them to be more transparent.”

Frank van Eekeren is a Senior Consultant from Utrecht University.

Links to other AGGIS video interviews: