7 ways to make transparency an agency priority

Honest and early communication is almost always the best way to communicate with EMS employees


By Guillermo Fuentes

Leaders and organizations often fall victim to an urge to keep information hidden, only informing the fewest people possible. While transparency may seem risky, it is almost always the better choice.

Transparency improves relationships with employees and other stakeholders, encourages accountability and prevents uncomfortable situations that arise when people discover that they were kept in the dark.

The meaning of the word “transparent” itself is sometimes clouded by the vantage point of the speaker. Organizational leaders often feel being transparent means revealing the limited information they feel is necessary to share. Outsiders sometimes demand the release of any and all information as the only way to demonstrate transparency.

What is clear is that some version of openness must exist, in the areas of data and information exchange as well as policy and regulations. Information that is not released officially will likely be leaked or replaced with rumor and innuendo, adding another reason to embrace organizational transparency.

How to become a more transparent organization

So how do you take the steps required to make your organization transparent?

In the book “Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability," Quint Studer outlines seven steps to creating a more transparent organization.

1. Align senior leadership

This is the most difficult step for all paramilitary emergency services, be it EMS, fire or police. They each tend to have operational structures that are designed around command and control, not open dialogue. Studer states that leaders need to ask themselves three questions:

  • Does everyone see the external environment the same way?
  • Does everyone understand organizational goals and plans?
  • Does everyone agree on what success looks like?

Honestly look at your last senior management meeting you had and ask yourself if you can answer yes to all three questions. If you fail here as a leadership team, the next six steps will likely fail as well.

2. Close the perception gap between senior leadership and middle managers

Senior leaders who face external pressures daily (media, legal, etc.) understand the financial constraints and the political environment. The supervisory level is dealing with staff issues every day with little knowledge of what the organizational environment is. This perception gap builds mistrust and often creates an “us-versus-them” mentality.

3. Ensure employees understand the financial impact of decisions

Employees on the front lines of public safety organizations tend to have little or no knowledge of the true costs and return on investment of certain decisions, such as using overtime staffing or purchasing new equipment. Often, senior management’s knee-jerk reaction to these requests is to reject them outright. A better solution, according to Studer, is to spend the time educating front-line managers about the costs of doing business.

4. Communicate vital issues to frontline employees

Contrary to popular belief, an email or a memo does not communicate more than the most elementary information. Real communication still occurs verbally, so organizations must have communication rituals, such as scheduled meetings, where senior leaders and middle managers carry the same message to the frontline staff.

5. Prepare managers to answer tough questions

Chiefs make difficult decisions every day. They choose to spend resources in one area, and not another. But often the managers who are forced to explain these choices to the staff don’t have input on the decisions and often don’t know the reasons they were made. This forces them to make up answers or side with staff on the latest rumor. A pillar of a transparent organization is that the front line supervisor provides the same answer as the chief of the service when questioned about organizational decisions.

6. When delivering bad news, treat employees like adults

Unpopular decisions create fear and apprehension, which is where rumors are born. If you as a leader know that a decision is going to affect people negatively, it is important to communicate the decision—and the “why”—or people will fill in the blanks, often with something much worse.

7. Keep people posted

When something changes, communicate the change and keep people abreast of what is to come. As leaders, we often feel that this is burdensome. We say to ourselves that things are always changing, and we don’t have the time to keep everyone up to date. Yet this step of keeping people up to date builds trust with the front line and keeps people within the fold of the organization.

Organizational transparency is not easy; it is a purposeful act of building trust. It represents the moment when an organization reaches the maturity to deal with employees as adults and trusts them to be ambassadors within the organization and the community at large. This is particularly important in EMS and other public safety agencies, whose frontline employees are often trusted and respected by the community.

About the author

Guillermo Fuentes, MBA, is a partner at Fitch & Associates. He supervises statistical and operational analysis, computer modeling and the development of deployment plans as well as major technology purchases and communications center installations for clients. He previously served as the Chief Administrative Officer of the Niagara Regional Police Agency, in Ontario, Canada, and Associate Director of EMS for the Niagara Region.

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