Politicians, business and educational leaders all have done things that, once exposed, raised the level of mistrust about them. Most recently, Secretary Tom Price submitted his resignation after his travel on charter and military planes was discovered. Recent indictments of coaches and sponsors in the NCAA were just revealed, plaguing some of the best teams in college basketball and costing jobs. Somewhere a teacher or a principal or a superintendent is probably also falling from grace.
So, in response, one might find a call for increased transparency a logical response. It is all about communication and action. In this environment of technology, it is increasingly difficult to hide anything, or so it seems. School leaders have a sense of what information the public needs and when they need it but we all miss the mark sometimes. Then, there are those among the public who want to know much more than we might ordinarily release. So, there are legal procedures to force us to make available what is not confidential when it is requested. The process takes time and almost always feeds controversy of some sort. With the public as watchdog, leaders stay honest and that is a good thing, isn’t it? But, is it necessary?
Transparency and Trust
Exactly what is transparency and how does it work? There is a relationship between transparency and trust. But there are those who are highly transparent and are not trusted and the reverse is also true. There are those who are trusted and exhibit very little transparency. So, how does it work? Well, we observe that it depends on the source. Is transparency offered or demanded? Is information being shared or is it being discovered? Ah, that makes a difference.
The demand for transparency was to insert a check on leaders, to take their work into the light. The public wanted to be sure that those with power and authority were not abusing their power, taking money that wasn’t theirs, not being generous to some and not to others for personal gain. It is the realm of kickbacks and bribery and perks. When the leaders involved are public leaders and taxpayer money is involved, the energy around these issues is inflammatory.
In this current political climate, the whole issue of transparency may be redefined. The POTUS is more forthcoming in thought and word than many a “typical politician” but simultaneously he has refused to disclose his tax returns. Despite his direct communication through twitter, he holds very closely to information about family and business ties. His appointees have been tripped up by not fully disclosing contracts and meetings and some have lost jobs because of it. The Russian investigation plagues his White House. Among old school superintendents there was a myth that if you buried your board in information ...and your public, too...you could control where they looked and what the discourse would be. Maybe that is the philosophy of transparency to which our POTUS subscribes.
Our elected officials in Congress are our watchdogs, we hope. We watch with rapt attention to understand why it is that some are willing to allow what is uncovered to be dismissed. We are hard pressed to find an experience in public school leadership where the same can happen. In the environment of an unusual political climate, where the opposition and polarization is more in vogue than compromise and dialogue, school district leaders have to hold the bar high.
Let the good news and the bad news come from us. Tell the truth. Be honest. Set the context. Stay out front. Keep on message. Listen well. Anticipate. Transparency does build trust if it is sincerely meant to serve the public. It can also be critical in building support for the school and the system.
Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.
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