On the Chatham House Rule

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.