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A buzzword for the buzzsaw

by Marc MacDonald
in Communication
March, 2022

It’s time to purge “transparent” from our municipal vocabulary

Stop being transparent.

Now, before you turn away and leave such a municipally blasphemous statement behind, let it sink in. Don’t think about what being transparent means to you, but think about what it means to your stakeholders, or at the very least what they think it means when you tell them you’re being transparent.

The ethos driving its definition is sound, moral even, but no less misunderstood by the public. Defining this as a misunderstanding is an over-generalization, but it’s no less accurate in the municipal context and can often lead to a high-stakes game of public relations chicken between the municipality and its residents. And who needs that?

The very word itself is inviting, if not flattering. It suggests a door held open just for you. A golden ticket for a peek behind the curtain of municipal machinery. However, instead of seeing the levers at work, you’re often left straining to see through a frosted glass window: you can discern activity on the other side, but specific details or insights are murky at best.

Welcome to being transparent. Not as it’s meant, but how it is perceived. And we all know that perception is reality.

Seven Principles to Drive Communication Planning

This year, the City of Welland will unveil a comprehensive communications plan to guide the corporation through its communications objectives. This is a common document for any municipality. However, what is uncommon is that it will have absolutely no reference to being transparent.

During the project’s research phase, it was impossible to escape the word itself. Survey data showed that transparency ranks among the highest priorities for residents. The word was everywhere. It reached a point where it seemed like transparency would dominate the plan and everything connected to it. The title of the document itself could have just been the very word. But it soon became clear that while people were asking for transparency, what they really wanted was a fusion of truth, relevancy, and availability.

As the city’s communications plan advanced, staff identified seven principles to drive the corporate approach to engage and communicate with the community and others. These seven principles link back to the tenet of transparency but serve uniquely distinct functions.

1. Accessibility

Your municipality must be accessible in every facet. Information should be easy to find, understand, and readily available. In principle, it sounds simple, but making information accessible can birth projects from small to large.

In the City of Welland, part of this includes redesigning the city’s website. Reimaging how information is made available on the website is a huge undertaking, but the work will be worth it.

2. Accuracy

Facts. Always. No matter what. If you present the facts on a topic – any topic – the path to the end is smoother and your chances for success increase. It won’t necessarily change dissenting opinions or simmer fervent objections, but it will ensure an open dialogue between what the municipality is doing and how it impacts the community.

Not every detail will be a shiny talking point, but it doesn’t have to be. Some are just plain boring, and boring isn’t always bad. Whatever you do, do not dress coal up like gold. Intrepid citizen detectives or the media will sniff out your bait and switch, and you’ll be left to answer why.

3. Consistency

If you move the goalposts midway through the game, two things will happen:

  1. no one is going to want to play with you; and
  2. you’ll lose a great deal of credibility.

Make sure your message stays consistent and develop a plan to deliver it. If you say the same thing repeatedly, people will believe it.

If you believe in your message and it checks off a box for your communications principles, you should have no problem gaining public trust in your messaging.

4. Creativity

Break the norms. Ignore the status quo. Get creative. There are so many ways to tell a story, to excite a community about what’s happening in it. Simply stating the five W’s is excellent information as a starting point, but don’t expect much action to be taken.

If you get creative in your approach, voice, and delivery, you will begin to stand out. And once you start to stand out and people start talking about what you’re doing, you’re halfway home. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Some of them will fail spectacularly, but some of them will be home runs.

5. Relatability

Government is a forum riddled with acronyms, political jargon, and carefully crafted responses. Leave these tactics to the politicians. From a communications perspective, the best thing to do is to speak in plain language.

If you can communicate in a manner that helps the community understand what is happening and how it affects them, you’re on your way to scrubbing the use of transparency from your vocabulary. Moreover, if you can present information in a manner that others will understand, you will receive fewer inquiries and gain greater trust.

6. Relevancy

Be mindful of the information you’re sharing when responding to questions. Yes, your response may result from a by-law enacted 30 years ago or a policy sitting in draft mode, but if the question itself is not rooted in a requested history of the answer, offering one only frustrates the other party.

Provide only the information that directly impacts stakeholders, or at the very least lead with it. If necessary, include the background information after you’ve answered the initial question. Let the receiver determine whether it is beneficial to pick up the breadcrumbs.

7. Timeliness

In journalism, a popular adage supports getting it right over getting it first. This is invariably true, regardless of the professional path you walk. Since municipalities are quasi-customer service enterprises, and many – if not all – have a social media presence, there is an ingrained belief that turnaround times for information will be quick, if not at warp speed.

This expectation is reasonable, to a degree, but a response to check off a box on your “to do” list should never come at the expense of compromising the facts. The population understands that not every answer is at your fingertips. Communicating this is essential. An acknowledgment of receipt can be just as important as the information itself. Don’t rush it, but don’t delay it either.

Time to Ditch Dangerous Buzzwords

The principles above form a blueprint that removes “transparency” from our municipal vernacular without losing its essence. Engagement and trust will rise, and negativity and misinformation will drop. Information flows from municipality to citizen on the stream of honest approaches to communications.

Municipalities are unique and will have different needs, diverse community concerns, and focused game plans to address those needs. There is no one catch-all solution, but employing the seven principles above pays dividends.

Some may use the word transparency as a pillar in their communications plans, and it’s a noble and authentic sentiment. But there are dangers to buzzwords, especially those that espouse contempt for not meeting the belief that you should be sharing every last detail. There is a reason Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy exists. There is a reason your neighbour cannot ask the tax clerk how much you pay in taxes each year. If breached, there are levels of privacy that will compromise the corporation and the trust it has with its stakeholders.

So, if honesty is the best policy, employ it. Be honest with your residents. Be honest with your staff. Ditch the idea of transparency as a means of anything other than being forthcoming in sharing the mechanisms of how decisions are made and their outcomes. Be honest about the process, the parameters, and the procedure. Do that, and you won’t need buzzwords to make others believe in what you’re saying.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Janet Hueglin Hartwick’s article: 4 tips to communicate change.

Marc MacDonald the Corporate Communications Manager with the City of Welland.

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