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Accountability, transparency, and living in the fishbowl

by Susan M. Gardner
in Communication, Ethics, Leadership

Life in a fishbowl. Living under a microscope every day. The glare of the spotlight on you at all times. That’s how I’ve heard more than one municipal colleague describe life and accountability inside city hall. For staff and administration, particularly at times when the public’s passion for a given community issue may be running high, the spotlight can feel uncomfortably hot – perhaps even unbearable.

Transparency and accountability remain fundamental to ensuring the integrity of local government (which is arguably the most transparent and accountable order of government in Canada). However, for those entrusted with the task of delivering public services and making policy, this responsibility can sometimes feel like a heavy weight to be borne.

For elected officials, especially, the spotlight of public scrutiny can shine particularly bright. And, it’s no longer simply conduct at a council meeting or statements made at a public appearance, in a media interview, or off the cuff at the local coffee shop or pub that are dissected under the public’s watchful eye. No, today’s elected official (and the mayor most particularly) must model transparency and accountability under a spotlight that extends across a growing network online. It’s a world where every move may be recorded, scrutinized, and criticized. It’s a world where the temptations are great and the opportunities many: to speak your mind; to inadvertently “let slip” what’s happening in negotiations for that vacant piece of city property; to let the community in on what’s being discussed at all those in camera meetings related to the town’s recent personnel problem; to finally put that community “activist” in his place; to reveal a little more about your personal life than you’ll later wish you had.

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Unfortunately, all of those scenarios and more can – and have – happened. Social media can, of course, be a powerful tool for communication and engagement. However, there are pitfalls to be avoided. (See the article by Leigh Carter for more on this.)

Truly, the pitfalls are there for all of us; but, for those in the fishbowl, the consequences can be significant – not only at a personal, but also a community level. Adopting best practices for using social media is an important way to protect your good personal and professional reputation (both online and off).  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Christina Benty’s article: The struggle behind conscious leadership. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


Susan M. Gardner, MPA, is Editor and Publisher of Municipal World.

A version of this article was published in Municipal World, October 2017.


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