Transparency and the House of Mirrors

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Is there a CEO, an agency head, a committee chairman, or a politician in America who has failed to announce the “transparency” of his or her work? Even the latest ads from mortgage-lending services claim they believe in transparency—a sure sign that the term has gone mainstream.

But do any of these people ever explain (or do they even know) precisely what they mean by “transparency”? I think not. In today’s culture, the word seems to serve its own purpose, without need of an explanation. Just saying “my administration is transparent” is enough to float phantom buoys of leadership on the surface of otherwise dangerously shallow waters, and cause people who should know better to shiver in chilly giddiness.

But what exactly is transparency? It’s perhaps easier to talk about what it isn’t.

Having been involved for several years in school district administration, I can assure you that transparency is not a clear glass window and a microphone in a meeting room. Like many of my colleagues, I believe in the need for discretion and unmonitored discussion when deciding difficult issues that affect a district’s many constituencies. I know from firsthand experience how hard it is to explain publicly all the trade-offs and rationales that are inevitable parts of decisionmaking on a large scale.

In a perverse irony, leaders today may have created their own problems with the public by fostering an expectation that they will “reveal all” at some future date. In practice, however, public presentations are often given short shrift by a public used to reality TV and tell-all journalism. With those formats’ preordained solutions and “I knew there was something fishy here” conspiracies lurking just below an audience’s consciousness, hidden motives and unstated objectives are bound to be assumed.

"A truly data-driven decision is as rare as an alligator in Minnesota, and“transparency” is a fossil of new-age leadership jargon that should either be expunged or explained."

If I were to venture a guess about what school leaders mean—or want people to think they mean—when they use the word transparency, it would be this: that they have used data and other objective criteria that may not be available to the public to arrive at their decisions—and that, given the same information, the public would independently arrive at the same conclusions.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how it usually plays out. There are as many preconceived biases and well-aged grudges reflected in most decisions as there is data-driven reasoning. From my admittedly jaded perspective, I would venture to say that a truly data-driven decision is as rare as an alligator in Minnesota, and “transparency” is a fossil of new-age leadership jargon that should either be expunged or explained.

Most leaders may “talk the talk” when it comes to transparency, but few have given it serious thought. Rather, most embrace the buzzword and presume everyone shares their warm and fuzzy feeling. That lack of introspection may be why no comprehensive vision has evolved from this well-worn terminology.

So I would encourage everyone to listen closely when a leader sings that magic word transparency. And listen twice: once to what’s being sung, and again to the phony, resonant echoes over time. Do they sound like two different songs?

To my way of thinking, transparency needs to be about looking through something, rather than into a mirror reflecting what we already know—or want to believe. Current usage, unfortunately, leans more toward the latter than the former definition.

But if leaders could look at the window of transparency honestly, seeing in it not their own image but the needs of their community, education would be a step closer to its goal of public engagement—and on a course that would lead us away from the compulsion to touch up reality to make ourselves look better.

This is the level of transparency the public is seeking from us—not just our preset image, but what we’re made of and how we think. Often, community members express as much puzzlement over how district leaders reach their conclusions—the thought process involved—as over the conclusions themselves. That’s where genuine transparency could help.

Vol. 29, Issue 24, Page 29

Published in Print: March 10, 2010, as Transparency and the House of Mirrors
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