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Feb 4, 2019

Limits to transparency

When I first turned to the Dark Side, and became an administrator, I thought I would be different, would be transparent. I’ve got nothing to hide, and the more people know how I make decisions, the better. You can probably sense a “but” coming: it is not that simple. I quickly found out that I had to deal with other people’s secrets. A whole lot of information is either formally protected, or embarrassing to someone, or just confidential for a whole set of other reasons.

That class of secrets is easy to understand. Yet there is a whole set of other information that in theory can be disclosed, but it would not do any good. One example is financial data. The problem with that is that it is very difficult to understand. Financial systems are dynamic – no one knows exactly how much of your balances is committed, and how much is not at any given time. All projections are inaccurate, because there are too many variables. For example, one large sick leave or a resignation will throw your budget off balance. Money is clear only in the hind side. Besides the accounting business uses a whole set of categories that are not intuitively easy to comprehend. Consider a simple question: why are we spending 200K more on temp faculty this year than in the last year? The answer actually involves page-long explanation, half of which is mainly a guess. To those who never deals with budgets, some numbers appear to be to small and others – too large. Any spreadsheet looks unfair to someone. I never had a good, productive conversation with faculty over a spreadsheet.

Other decisions are so narrowly constrained that they are not really decisions. For example, the university tells you – you can hire a new faculty member if the position fits into this set of conditions. We look at our many programs, and see there is exactly one that fits. There is no point in consulting with anyone; it won’t change anything. To pretend to consult is disgusting. I could probably write a blog and explain later the reasoning to the last detail, but – it is as boring as it is inconsequential. Excessive self-justification is boring, annoying, and narcissistic.

Here is a more nuanced example. Let’s say you have an idea, a new initiative or a new program. If you share it too early, it is too weak, underdeveloped, nothing to discuss. Undercooked ideas are easily rejected, because they are too vulnerable to criticism. If you share too late, you lose on the buyout. People feel offended a fully formed proposal is sprung on them as a surprise. You look heavy-handed and authoritarian. There is a sweet spot somewhere in between, and it changes from chairs to faculty, to staff to students. Transparency can be gradual.

And here is one funny exception: never disclose who picked the colors. People have different sensibilities, and in the aesthetic matters, a democratic process fails every time. There has to be a dictator, otherwise colors never get picked, and people’s feelings get hurt needlessly. But if you have to have a dictator, his or her identity may as well stay secret, so the person does not get any flak.

In general, more transparency is better for an organization, because it prevents the mistrust build-up. However, it is not a blanket rule that applies to everything. Just like in any relationship, some things are better off not said.

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