On the Chatham House Rule

byScott Garrabrant10mo13th Jun 201820 comments

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I have gone to several events operating under the Chatham House Rule, and have overall found it more annoying than useful. In this post, I share why I dislike the rule, how I think it can be improved, and hopefully spark others to give ideas on how to improve it. In particular, I think the part about not revealing who was at the event should be opt in. Partially, my goal is to eventually develop a modified version that might be used at future events.

The Chatham House Rule states that "When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."

Note that the rule looks slightly ambiguous. If I am in a small conversation, clearly I cannot share who was in that conversation, but what about the list of participants as a whole? I think if you read the rule carefully, you will see that you cannot share who was at the event. Indeed, the official Chatham House website has more explanation, and explicitly states that "the list of attendees should not be circulated beyond those participating in the meeting." However a significant number of people I have asked at Chatham House Rule events were unaware that this was part of the rule.

Keeping participant lists a secret is hard

This is by far the most annoying part of the rule, and the fact that many participants often are not aware that it is part of the rule means that the attempts by people trying to follow the rule are mostly useless. It almost feels like an information hazard to me to make more people aware of what the Chatham House Rule says, since following this part of the rule is so annoying.

I have personally violated this part of the rule many times. Once, I got an email with information on logistics for the event. Inside the email were a bunch of links to google docs with details. One of the docs said that the event was under the Chatham House Rule, without explaining what it was. I at the time did not know that this applied to the list of participants. I forwarded the email to my wife, so she would know where I was and what to pack for me. The email was sent directly to me and all the rest of the participants, so the attendees were visible.

Another time, I went to a Chatham House rule event, and when I arrived, I was given a schedule of talks with an entire list of participants in the back. When I first received it thought to myself "bleh, do I have to shred this?" I didn't dispose of it, I left it in my luggage. My wife later found it and asked me if I wanted it, while starting to flip through it quickly. I told her to just throw it away. She didn't see names, but she could have, which means I messed up.

After that same event, when asked how the event was, I mentioned that I saw "someone" give a talk on X. I mentioned this because I thought X was interesting. The person I was talking to said they knew who the person was, since they had seen that talk.

I went to another event, and afterwords, someone emailed me asking for advice on research projects. In the email they mentioned that they enjoyed talking to me at the event. I wanted to add a third person to the email thread who I knew would have a project that would be a good fit for him. Instead I responded by telling him about the project, and saying that he could add the person to the thread himself, explaining that I didn't want to do it because of the Chatham House rule. He misunderstood, and instead of adding him to the thread, asked me if he could add him to the thread. I got frustrated and decided to interpreted his question as permission and just added him myself. (I am clearly being pedantic here and the question clearly was permission, but I want to illustrate how annoying a literal interpretation of the rule is.)

Worse, the information about who was at the event is differentially hard. It is much harder to keep the information about who was there a secret than it is to keep information about who said what a secret. If you only have to keep information about what is said a secret, it is usually a valid response to say that you can't answer a question because of the Chatham House Rule. This is much less the case for information about who was there, because it can come up when you are already talking about a specific person. It is not uncommon to be asked if I know a specific person. How do I respond if I met them at a Chatham House Rule event?

I think this part of the rule is doing harm by making people take the other part less seriously. All while failing to provide benefit because not everyone even knows about it.

How to fix it

It seems we can do much better just by having people opt in to the part where their participation in the event should be a secret.

Note that we probably could not practically have people opt in the the whole of Chatham House Rule. This is because I expect something like half of people would opt in, and you cant keep track of that many people. Also, it is convenient to have everything said at the event under the Chatham House Rule, since otherwise it can be hard to remember what things that were said under the rule.

I expect that only a couple people (perhaps no people) at any given event will opt in to not being revealed to have been there. If this is wrong, this plan will not work. Also, if people want to not be singled out as opting in, this could cause some harm.

One thing to be concerned about is the cost of having two rules. Often there is a cost for having two standards, and I tend to avoid having to pay that cost, even if it means not introducing a better standard. However, in this case, I think that there is little benefit of having only one standard. If people spend 3 minutes at the beginning of each event thinking about what they are agreeing to, this would be better for achieving common knowledge. The main benefit of having one standard is having to keep track of which event used which rule, and if an individual does not want to pay that cost, they could just pretend that it is always the stricter rule.

Other possible minor changes

Some other changes that are probably not all good, but might be worth considering are:

Having formal talks be not under the Chatham House Rule, unless stated otherwise.

Introducing a mechanism for people to report themselves when they make mistakes.

Having a time at the beginning in which everyone agrees to the rule.

Having a time at the end where people can waive their right to Chatham House Rule if they feel that they didn't say anything they dont mind being public.