Guest Column

Making Transparency Concrete

by CHRIS J. KENNEDY

Transparency has become an overused mantra in the workplace, and in the public sector, in particular, leaders have faced an increased demand for transparent thinking and actions.

In my role as superintendent of a 7,200-student school district, transparency is about promoting accountability and accessibility, providing timely information for students, staff and parents about what their school district is doing. Essentially, it demystifies the work of schools and school districts.

Most people in our community have a clear idea of what teachers do, but there is much less understanding of what teacher-librarians, learning assistance teachers, school administrators, district staff and board trustees do.

Evolving Strategies
My goal around transparency is to help bring greater understanding of these important roles and of the full scope of the work we do in our school district. I have been overt in developing an evolving list of strategies to promote transparency, including these:

•  Offering the community multiple channels of communication. This includes traditional methods such as letters and telephone calls, as well as new methods such as social media and text messaging.

•  Distributing my contact information. Many were surprised when as a newly minted superintendent I gave this out to everyone. This information is printed on my business card; it is posted on my blog and on our district website. I don’t want anyone to ever say they don’t know how to reach me. Of course, sharing my contact information does not negate process, but it sets a tone and model for the organization.

•  Building a relationship with traditional and new media. It is often said education is poorly treated by the news media. We can change that by transforming complaining into engaging. This includes both traditional print media and new media. Dismissing edu-bloggers as “not influential” would be a huge mistake.

•  Sharing my cell phone number. Fifteen years ago, when teachers were first being set up with e-mail addresses at my school, I recall some staff were adamant about keeping their e-mail addresses private. They considered these to be private accounts, and they would only share their e-mail address on their terms. This was and is ludicrous because a school district address is not a private account. It is a corporate e-mail address, and our work is communicating with the community.

My cell phone also is provided by the school district, and it is my work phone. So I don’t really get the idea of not giving out this number. I can always choose whether to answer the phone, and I would much rather have people find me on a mobile number. 

•  Recognizing my calendar is not a secret. I do have some confidential appointments on my calendar, and they are labeled as such, but I am open to sharing my calendar with anyone who is interested. I know most people in the school district, let alone the community, have only a limited sense of the work I do. The more people who understand the work, the greater the appreciation of the work.

•  Creating personal and corporate identities. It is important that we balance our personal identities in the context of our district identities. I am mindful of the separation between my own identity and that of my role in the district, but they are also closely connected. I allow our communications officer to manage all our corporate social media conversations.

•  Holding meetings at schools. Whenever a teacher or administrator wants to meet, I do my best to connect at their school and not in my office. While this is not always possible, most of our schools are within 10 minutes of the central office. As well, I often use these out-of-office meetings as an excuse to visit at least a couple of classrooms — it gives me a better sense of the tone in the school. The more I can connect as a “real person,” the better.

•  Sharing a bit about my life. I have four children; the oldest two are in school. They attend public schools. I have a personal interest in a great public school system in British Columbia. This is a careful balance, but we have public jobs, and people appreciate knowing some of the things in life, beyond the job, that drive us. I want to be personable, without crossing the boundaries of sharing too much that is personal.

•  Telling my story in my words. I blog for many reasons, and one of them is that I can share my messages unfiltered. I don’t have to worry about being misquoted or hope others will share ideas in a timely way. My blog allows me to connect in real time to the community. It is also a place for discussion and dialogue.

•  Thinking twice whether something needs to be on e-mail. Rather than sending e-mails with information to groups of people, if there is an appropriate place to post the information publicly and share the link with those who would be most interested, I prefer to do this. I use SlideShare to post PowerPoint presentations publicly rather than e-mailing the presentations to those interested. I am amazed how many times people have stumbled on information I have posted publicly and really appreciated the content.

I have said transparency will be a key aspect of everything I do, as will regularly asking questions such as “How could we do this in a more public and engaging way?” There is a lot to do, and this list will continue to evolve — in a public context, of course.

Chris Kennedy is superintendent in West Vancouver, British Columbia. He blogs at http://cultureofyes.ca and tweets at @chrkennedy. E-mail: ckennedy@sd45.bc.ca