Last week 1,300 government ministers, civil society representatives and business leaders from OECD countries gathered in Paris to discuss the profound integrity and trust challenges facing the world today.
The OECD Integrity Forum has gained significant momentum over the last few years, as it becomes recognized as one of the few opportunities to tackle ethics and compliance issues from a multidisciplinary perspective.
“Meet me by the elephant” became the catchphrase of the week, as attendees drank coffee and networked in the shadow of a giant paper mache elephant — a reminder that even though it is 2017, corruption is still the elephant in the room.
Though focused on global policy concerns, this is a highly relevant forum for companies interested in understanding and contributing to critical debates whose outcomes will shape the future of business ethics. I left energized and excited, convinced of the need to amplify the focus on organizational culture, values and public trust. It is also clear that we need multi-stakeholder efforts to tackle the many collective action problems that corruption and integrity issues present.
What were the key conclusions for business at the OECD Integrity Forum this year?
Integrity beyond compliance: Building world class compliance programs that withstand regulatory and public scrutiny will remain a career defining challenge for many of us, but the attention of business leaders and policy makers is now evolving to consider how such programs can address concerns over corporate values and wider societal and economic challenges.
Attendees agreed on the need to reexamine the role of business in an era where individual empowerment on issues of human rights and environmental justice is amplified by transparency trends to create a transformative new risk environment for multinational corporations. This focus was illustrated by the title of the closing plenary where I had the honor of discussing equality, inclusion and trust as drivers of integrity, joined by Transparency International and government ministers from the UK and Argentina.
Advisers as ethics champions: Lawyers and accountants are ready to reexamine their roles, as it has emerged that all too often advisers act as enablers of corruption rather than advocates of integrity. A fascinating panel hosted by Nicola Bonucci, the OECD’s director for legal affairs, talked about the need for professional advisers to embrace standards beyond legal compliance, but the practical challenges that this creates in a world where concepts of legal liability remain paramount.
The corruption debate moves beyond bribery: Tax avoidance and financial transparency are now a critical concern for civil society and shareholder activists, and a network of NGOs is collaborating to interpret and amplify investigative findings. Policy capture and lobbying practices are a major reputational concern for companies and policy makers, though as political scientist Anne Christine Wegener pointed out, appearance and proof of policy capture are not the same thing. Stronger transparency and accountability mechanisms need to be combined with rigorous input from diverse stakeholders to address this challenge.
The emergence of Due Diligence 2.0: Due diligence has moved beyond tick-box paper processes via a range of innovative investigative efforts to drive disclosure of beneficial ownership and improve meaningful awareness of supply chain risks. The focus on beneficial ownership as the primary frontier for international cooperation and change efforts from European governments was striking. The open data movement has been critical in driving greater public accountability, but there was a sense that more effort and intervention is needed to help civil society interpret data and use it to leverage meaningful change.
From risk to impact: The importance of anti-corruption and integrity efforts to wider sustainability challenges such as climate finance and wildlife trafficking was another major discussion topic. This reflects a wider trend in the anti-corruption world to consider impact as well as risk, reflecting a growing convergence with human rights and other core integrity principles.
The impunity challenge: Conditions where abuse of power combines with lack of accountability are a key concern, with several intense discussions on how to tackle impunity among powerful business executives and politicians. The transformative effect of the Panama Papers and Brazil’s Operation Car Wash was clear, even as consequences and responses from government and business are still playing out. CEO activism is increasingly demanded as society expects more from both government and business.
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The ongoing shifts in the business ethics landscape will affect the future of the corporation — and the planet. But it is encouraging that the OECD is providing a venue to discuss them in a multidisciplinary environment. Conferences — whether they are on economic development, corporate compliance or sustainability — can sometimes feel like echo chambers, where practitioners don’t feel comfortable discussing the intractability of the challenges they face. Bringing diverse and varying perspectives into a room to tackle them head on is just a first step, but could not be more critical in 2017.
Alison Taylor is director of advisory services at BSR, a non-profit consultancy and company network focused on sustainability and CSR. She’s currently seeking critical input and case studies to build on her new working paper, The Five Levels of an Ethical Culture.