“If we can’t trust each other, we are worthless to each other.”
This mantra proved true throughout my nearly 30 years advising executive leaders and leading teams on public engagement issues.
Trust must be earned, deserved, cherished and preserved. Yet while leaders cannot succeed without it, trust cannot be mandated, demanded or expected. It must be given freely, belongs to the giver even once given, and can be withdrawn on a whim.
Leaders can’t control trust, but they can control one of the surest paths to trustworthiness – their own credibility.
By ensuring their words and actions are consistent and aligned and welcoming public scrutiny, leaders are more credible and therefore more likely to be trusted. Leaders whose words and actions are inconsistent and misaligned and who resist or resent public scrutiny become incredible in the truest sense: they are impossible to believe.
Several senior government leaders in New Mexico are running a significant credibility and trust deficit with the public. To overcome it, they must strengthen credibility through transparency about their personnel, priorities, plans, policies, programs and processes.
Here are five concrete ways they can create transparency to earn the public’s trust:
First, create, publish, train to and enforce a policy of transparency. This isn’t complicated. It can be simple, straightforward leadership guidance like this:
“Our policy on responding to requests for information from members of the public, including legislators and media representatives, is maximum disclosure with minimum delay. Our mindset must be ‘Release as much as possible’ rather than ‘Withhold all we can.’ We will provide timely, accurate, thorough responses to questions. When we withhold information for legitimate privacy or safety reasons, we will explain those reasons and release the information as soon as those reasons are no longer valid.”
Second, establish a system for tracking queries from the public, making responses accessible to the public and inviting follow-up questions. Don’t claim an issue is too complicated to explain; invest the time to help the public understand.
Third, make IPRA a highly accessible last resort rather than the default method to request public information. In keeping with maximum disclosure, minimum delay, make your public information officer the lead for responding to public queries. But whether your PIO or records custodian coordinates responses, strive to provide them before legally allowable deadlines; don’t abuse attorney-client privilege as an excuse to withhold information; redact to preserve privacy and safety, not to avoid embarrassment; and absolutely do not “white redact” to obscure the fact content has been removed.
Fourth, when employees raise concerns, address those concerns openly rather than reprimanding, reassigning or firing them. If an employee – whether new or highly experienced – has questions about a policy or practice, it’s a leader’s responsibility to help them understand.
Finally, craft, publish and openly report progress on a comprehensive strategic plan that includes concrete, measurable, achievable goals and objectives and strategies to achieve them.
Closing a credibility and trust deficit takes time, but these simple, proven techniques can help any competent leader experience a measurable increase in public trust within 18-24 months of assuming responsibility for their organization.
Being subject to constant public scrutiny can be frustrating, but transparency and accountability are essential prospects of leadership in public service. Senior government executives who can’t handle the scrutiny should seek work elsewhere.