What Is Transparency?

So, this is one of those very interesting realities of being "in the arena" versus being strictly in the media or in the audience: during an Executive Session of Council last week, as noted on the Special Council Session's agenda, we discussed the situation with our city's police union. Today's Chagrin Solon Sun article, "Layoff possibility looms for Pepper Pike Police Department as city demands wage cuts of up to 30 percent; new offer being discussed," follows up on that fact.

When I was contacted by the Sun earlier this week, I dutifully said, I can't discuss this topic because we discussed it in Executive Session and I'm not allowed to say anything.  Yet apparently, some information was already out on the street and the reporter - also true to duty - was trying to figure out fact from fiction and report as accurately and completely on what the media was hearing, preferably with input from the City's elected officials.  Eventually, as the article reveals, the Mayor and one of my colleagues were able to address the reporter's questions.

That was actually the second time this week that I said "no" to a reporter - and I hated it both times (the other time had to do with a request for the draft FAQs related to the budget situation; we'd passed out the draft to Council and during the meeting, discussed the need for input, but not the content of the document itself, so it was ruled to not be a public record).

Somewhat deep thought: In accepting being on Council, I've accepted to operate by a different set of rules than I operate under as an unelected person.  And some of the rules are showing me how the definition of transparency is, itself, far less transparent - let alone singular - than I ever imagined.

How do I sort this out? I'm working on that, but mostly, it's an ongoing process - one which includes hearing from the media, hearing from legal eagles, hearing from my colleagues and hearing from the residents I serve.

Ultimately, I go back to knowing that I took an oath related to serving on Council and serving the City of Pepper Pike.  And what I'm finding is that, at times, the acceptance of that responsibility requires me to support actions that, if I was not on Council and had not taken that oath, I would not support.

One conclusion I'm considering: that the notion of transparency is like the notion of an appraisal, because we usually first ask, "What's it for?".

What do you think?

9 comments:

Adam Harvey said...

Transparency is one of those words that means something different to every person.

To me, in a government context, it means providing the most information while doing the least harm. Then you have to be aware of all the different things that constitute "harm." It could be offering too many specifics, it could be offering too much of your own opinion (that is then taken as official position), it could be a host of other things.

I think most people understand that there are some things that can't be talked about or distributed immediately. It's the way you respond to them that makes the difference. Helping out in good faith and with dependable follow-through is much better than defensiveness.

Walking that line is tough and it is often easier to play it safe than be sorry. I think in order to be truly transparent, you have to be willing to not play it safe by withholding information.

Transparency requires a willingness to be held accountable.

Jill said...

Hi Adam - thanks for the comment. I think your last line is excellent - transparency wouldn't be so in demand if there weren't so many examples of trust being taken for granted and misused. That's what, in my opinion, presses on the need/demand for transparency - which I think really only increases when there are suspicions. But if people's default is to BE open and transparent, then I suspect the demand would also decrease, you know what I mean?

I think you do a great job putting you finger on where the rubber meets the road. And yet I can't fault the media or residents for wanting as much information and transparency as the system allows or as a situation requires or demands.

I'm also re-educating myself in terms of what "in the best interests" really means, or, maybe I should say, all the ways in which it can be interpreted, depending on who is doing the interpretation, and who you're defining as the one for whom you want to act on, in the best interest.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Adam Harvey said...

It sounds like we're on the same page. I guess I'd add that, along with a willingness to be held accountable, a person devoted to transparency also has to be someone to whom self-examination comes naturally. You really have to be able and willing to constantly reevaluate.

Jill said...

Totally agree re: must be okay with evaluating - I've always had a problem with calling anyone a flipflopper because that means that you're coming from an assumption that people should never change their minds or that there's something wrong with changing one's mind. Now, of course, if you change your mind, you should be able to explain it. But we do have a prerogative to do that - it's just that if you're an elected official and you said something that people relied on and THEN you change? That's something else, too.

Anyway - books could be written on this - and I suspect have been - I actually googled them. ;)

Ari Herzog said...

Perhaps you are being completely transparent but less open? You can operate in a closed system, e.g. executive session, and still be transparent, after all.

Jill said...

Ari - that is a GREAT distinction, I actually hadn't really thought of it that way at all. I have to think more about that. Yes - for example, in this post, I'm being open about the fact that I couldn't be as transparent as perhaps the media would wish I would be, but I was very open about not being able to be, about seeking opinion for it and so on. Is that what you mean?

Then again, being open and not transparent - that's still, at least maybe from a resident's perspective, another layer/distinction that perhaps some wish didn't exist.

Are you finding any friction between what you would have thought you could "tolerate" as being transparent and yet realizing that you can't be as transparent as you might have thought you could be about everything?

Paul said...

Jill:

I struggle with this as well. In business, I learned that being as open as possible with customers fostered trust, which led to long-term relationships (and it's tough to grow a business if you spend all your time replacing disgruntled customers).

Yet there were still matters that we'd rather not disclose, sometimes because they weakened our bargaining position (e.g. not every customer needed to know our supply costs, although we did share this with some).

In the case of a government, the Sunshine Law and subsequent case law give a great deal of guidance. I agree with nearly all of it, but it creates some difficult situations.

For example, if you are recruiting a new superintendent, the case law suggests that, if asked, a school board must reveal the names of all who have applied, as well as their applications/resumes. That makes it difficult to get the best candidates to consider the job, because they almost certainly are in a position that they would like to keep. Having it known that they have shown interest in another job usually compromises the relationship with their current employer.

Similarly, the 'exploratory' conversations that may happen between a governing body and its labor unions are best done out of the spotlight, and I think this is appropriate as long as public disclosure and discussion takes place before such a conversation moves to legislation.

Things look different from the inside, huh?

Jill said...

Paul - those are really excellent examples of what I mean, and sometimes the situations are even less clear. I definitely want to look at what's been written about the transparency, being open and getting work done. Though I have to say, I still think that trust ends up being the foundation for everything in this realm - if it existed and wasn't violated, the demand for transparency wouldn't be as vehement or in need of monitoring so much.

Paul said...

Yes, trust is the key. But there seems to be another layer in the case of a public body: the public's right to know not only what decision you made, but what the debate was like leading up that decision.

The criticism I've long had about our school board is that they very rarely had any public discussion of matters they voted on. It is one of my primary goals to change that.