There is one predictor of the success of your bond election and program that outweighs any other. While its presence might not completely guarantee that your bond will pass, its absence almost surely spells failure: trust. As we all know, trust is earned slowly and can be lost in a moment. It is usually a direct result of transparency, which can be elusive. But in a bond program, without trust, there is no money. And without transparency, there is no trust.
The thing about community expansion of any kind – in our case, school building programs – is that when it is done deliberately, it ends up looking more like a marathon than a sprint. Transparency and trust in a situation like that can quickly become incomplete or convoluted. To begin with, building in a public setting is tricky, because of all the agencies involved. Then there is the difficulty of getting local governmental entities to publish your project data in a way that is clear and accessible to everyone who needs it. The whole thing is challenging at best, and a complete nightmare at worst.
By taking a more thorough look at any building effort, we see that there is often more detail than it seems at first glance. In the past, the community stakeholders were left to assemble these seemingly miscellaneous pieces. The trick was to find the flagstone and then combine the pieces together, which typically just left everyone involved feeling confused and dissatisfied.
As the open governmental decision-making movement continues, there has been a lot of talk about what that really means. The general idea is that there has to be an open combination of policy, processes, data, tracking, and reporting to assure our community that things are being run properly and honestly.
Often, when I meet with school district officials, I’ll ask, “What does transparency mean to you?” What happens next is comical, contradictory, and enlightening. They usually start with what their current processes are, followed with some playful argument about what they really are. Then the conversation evolves into what they ought to do. Further argument of what that is ensues. Finally, they settle upon the fact that they really don’t know what transparency should look like and redirect the question back to me: “What do you think?”
I like to tell a story about the trial regarding the conspiracy of the JFK assassination. In the midst of the investigation, prosecuting attorney Jim Garrison requested a document from the federal government to admit into evidence: a 5×7” photo secured by the Warren-Commission. In response, and legally bound to comply, the federal government sent Mr. Garrison over 400 uncategorized and unorganized boxes of documents and evidence with a note that simply said, “As requested.”
At this point, I ask my audience, “Is that transparency?” to which they all answer with an obvious “NO!”
How are they disseminating their data? Is it information overload to err on the side of thoroughness? Is it everything so they aren’t accused of withholding anything? Or is it not enough, selective, and inadequate?
Ultimately, your information needs to satisfy the public’s need to understand how the dollars are being spent. It needs to be understandable and it needs to answer all the big questions, as well as providing the details when necessary.
But what does that look like? What does a simple yet complex, faultless document truly look like? Life experience tells me that failure often paves the way to the next win, but with school building programs, you aren’t in a position to fail. This is why I ask these district decision makers, “What is transparency?” Because how they answer to their community will make or break the trust that has been given.
This is a short take on a complicated subject that, in the end, is unique to every community. Hopefully, it gives you some food for thought as to what transparency might mean to you and your constituents and illustrates how far we have to go to provide that.
If you have any specific questions or would like to know the rest of my thoughts on being transparent, feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 714.505.9544.