Transparency and Government: thoughts on earning public trust
I work as an administrative assistant in local government and in my capacity, do not have much contact with members of the public. Sometimes I do have to walk out into our lobby and pull files and I can feel the angry glares from people waiting to see an official, or I receive the occasional phone call from someone “just trying to get a live person” on the line. I therefore have put some thought into customer service, trust building, and transparency in the public sector. Contrary to popular belief, government agencies do invest in and care about customer service, and particularly in transparency in response to public demand within the last decade or so. This connects to our class and our readings in a few ways. First, when people think of “libraries” as a concept, they are most likely to think about public libraries, which are run by local government. Because of this, public libraries are subject to the same criticisms and demands from the public as other government agencies. Libraries must justify their spending, must respond to demands for transparency, and must prove their value to the public that they serve. I find this same mission reflected by my agency, by my department, and in my own work.
Our readings on transparency show that on-demand information for the public is optimal, if not an outright necessity in today’s market. Chris Anderson discusses the idea of “radical transparency” in his blog post discussing how corporations have changed their public face from tightly controlled PR initiatives to open blogging about corporate day-to-day from staff. Aaron Schmidt shows that transparency builds trust and long-lasting relationships with customers. Brian Kenney’s article shows how the Seattle Public Library went too far in its efforts to rebrand itself by investing in a meaningless makeover that didn’t improve the quality of service to the public. I understand from our readings on transparency that in taking the risk of allowing more information out to the public, companies, libraries, and public institutions are rewarded by fostering trust. There is an implicit connection between sharing information and honesty, and the result of honest (or at least perceived honest) communication is trust between the customer and the company or agency.
The office I work for is investing in being as transparent as possible. We recently launched a web-based version of our records database so that anyone with access to the internet can review records from the mid-twentieth century to the present. From my understanding, a large issue in the public sector is that people instinctively don’t trust government enterprises. Libraries get a bit of a pass on this since they are understood to be more benevolent than say, the IRS or DMV but their funding and value can certainly be contentious at times. An important factor that didn’t come up as much as I thought necessary in the readings was that libraries (and other public-sector agencies) must not only be transparent, but must be open about their transparency! So much of what government agencies do to serve the public flies under the radar because they don’t have a PR and advertising budget on par with the private sector. Not only do we need to be transparent about our practices and processes but the public needs to know.