Apr 11, 2016

Transparency and Trust

We live in a time that values transparency.  Citizens call for transparency in government, employees seek it at work, parents want it in schools. Transparency is often a good thing, since it allows people to better understand and act on information that they need.  Easy access to policies allows citizens to better manage their affairs, understanding of a company’s strategy empowers employees to be more effective, clarity about a school’s goals and curriculum helps parents ensure that students learn.

But when school leaders hear calls for transparency, or when they consider heightening it themselves, they need to think carefully about how they respond.  The typical ways to increase transparency–sharing more information, adding representatives to governing bodies, changing policies to allow greater constituent oversight–may all be good things.  And they may increase transparency.  But they may not improve outcomes or satisfaction.

Here is why.  When people seek transparency they often want trust.  They want to know that leaders are acting in the interest of the students and the school.  They want to understand that decision-makers weigh all of the options before making a decision. They want to sit down and be heard. They want to have confidence that the common good, not self-interest drives the actions of people with whom they have entrusted their children, their money, or their futures.

Building trust is different from expanding transparency. Transparency is one-way and one-time. Sharing minutes from the governing board doesn’t mean the governing board also gets more insight into individual employees. Once a decision is made to add representatives to a governing board, that decision is made.

Trust is two-way and ongoing.  It comes from the back-and-forth of conversation, from the sharing of visions, aspirations, and frustrations, from working side-by-side on a common project. It demands and grows from empathy. It emerges from emotion. It is as much the result of eating lunch together and solving problems together as it is from policies, documents, or meetings. It grows in private but blooms in public.

A call for transparency, then, may signal a need for new policies and more information and changes in structure.  But those things should follow the hard work of building, or rebuilding, trust.


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