How We Use the Chatham House Rule

How We Use the Chatham House Rule

The core function of the Pricing Carbon Initiative is to support a network of individuals and organizations interested in pricing carbon. We have generally succeeded in this, and participants have often remarked on how there is no other forum where they encounter such thoughtful perspectives from people on the other side of the aisle. This is a success we are immensely proud of, and the way in which we use the Chatham House Rule is, we believe, a key to understanding that success. 

Chatham House is a London-based think tank first founded in 1919 in the wake of the First World War. It was founded to study international affairs with a vision to foster mutual understanding between nations and for the institute to propose solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. The Chatham House Rule (CHR) was formally adopted in 1927, and states simply “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.” So, the people who were there are confidential, but not what they said. 

As you might imagine, this construction is rather attractive. Deployed skillfully, the Chatham House Rule enables groups to learn more candid information more quickly, and even to use the information as they try to carve out public positions or private strategies on a topic. This is perhaps most important for groups who are trying to stake out a position that diverges substantially from that of other groups important to them. Some of their allies, constituents, or stakeholders may frown on them even attending such a meeting, and be willing to censure them publicly or privately should they find out. Thinking about Chatham House’s origins, it’s easy to imagine how meetings between governments in an ongoing conflict would pursue backchannel diplomacy that avoids escalation or even supports de-escalation towards peace. 

Of course, there need not be an active war going on for the Chatham House Rule to be useful. Participants in our network have found it useful for a number of reasons:

  • To map out where other organizations stand on an issue. 
  • To calibrate their own positions and strategies for greater effect. 
  • To learn about an issue without attracting attention. 
  • To connect quickly with a broader community of others over a shared interest. 

At PCI, we use the Chatham House Rule as a tool to engender trust. It is trust that helps us gather unusually diverse interests for candid conversations covering not just the academic (which still matters for good policymaking), but points of strategy and tactics as well. 

Trust must be earned, and we are diligent in our conduct to become and remain worthy of that trust. It must also be said, that we have been fortunate in our collaborators, and the wonderful way they work with and support us. Some considerations we take into account when running a Chatham House Rule dialogue:

  • The other participants at a dialogue are kept secret until the day before, or the day of. 
  • We avoid sharing agendas or speaker lists via e-mail because they can easily be forwarded. 
  • We never record a confidential meeting, except to facilitate our notetaking. 
  • Notes are held in confidence and shared only with participants upon request.  

Not all of our work is held under the Chatham House Rule. Our public forums and engagement with university professors and students are also an integral part of our work. However, we have found that the dialogue and discussion under CHR is more open and free-flowing. People say things they otherwise wouldn’t, and people attend who otherwise wouldn’t. It has also helped us attract marquee speakers. When inviting a governor or a member of Congress, we will give them a choice as to whether they’d prefer to speak to our network under CHR or as a public forum. Of course, fewer people will attend a CHR discussion, but the discussion is likely to be more open and interesting. 

There is much about our work that is more difficult because of how heavily we use the Chatham House Rule. Even some of our most regular participants and contributors we cannot share with the public. Constant vigilance over written communications is required, and it has a chilling effect on our public communications and media engagement. And yet, we feel it is well worth it.

Climate is a problem that touches every life on our planet. Accordingly, solutions must be comparably universal (i.e. with buy-in across political divides). Though our day-to-day is more challenging because of it, the back-channel connections we have seen form and blossom in our dialogues convince us that our work merits the struggle. When the stakes are high, and the success or failure of climate legislation is at stake, a phone call between old friends on opposite sides of the issue can be what makes or breaks the deal. PCI and our CHR dialogues put those numbers into those phones. 

Photo by Chatham House.