What do Police Departments and Public Schools have in common?

In 2020 they’ve both been forced to reckon with situations that question their legitimate, organizational authority. One over perceived systemic racism and safety (Black Lives Matter) and the other over COVID-19: how to engage with stakeholders, how to share information, and (allegedly) safeguard the personal safety of students when faced with something no one alive has dealt with before.

Social scientists have determined that when faced with a government that doesn’t illicit trust, one’s ability to trust any organization is diluted — a little or a lot, depending on how a leader or organization earns your trust.

Will Smith said: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” If you’re a person of color and you’ve learned down through the generations that your life is potentially at risk with any police authority interaction, the new reality of every citizen having a camera phone is a way of injecting an opinion different from authority into every traffic stop. That’s transparency.

My point here is not to get into personal feelings about Black Lives Matter but to say that our modern world of technology makes it easier for regular people to engage in civic life, and it can be an uncomfortable thing for organizations who have historically been able to manage the narrative. As an organizational behaviorist and corporate drone, I’ve studied this phenomenon. In an earlier post, I quote Tom Peters about what are the oldest, continually-operating organizations. The younger of the two in that post is over 800 years old. Organizations exist, first and foremost, to continue to exist. Any other mission comes second.

Which unfortunately is where school systems and COVID-19 converge.

Historically, public school systems are democratic society’s great equalizer: they’re designed to educate and train the next generation in how to be productive members of society, get good jobs, pay taxes, and keep the wheels on the bus going round and round. But they are also a bureaucratic, big business — often the biggest organization and employer in many small towns. They have payroll, receive tax revenue, buy land, build buildings and football stadiums, etc.

Did I mention that the 800-year-old organization above is an educational institution?

Over the past two weeks, I’ve reluctantly waded into issues of our local school system and their responses to educating students during the unknown of COVID-19. We’ve learned that written statements and verbal assurances from mid-Summer to now have not meshed, and this has created a disconnect that has brought together a bunch of parents, armed with torches and pitchforks. Like all parents, our sole duty is to protect our children, and the organization’s responses have come out hollow. Our attempts to ask for more information on their decision processes (transparency) go nowhere. Board members clutch their pearls aghast that we parents say that they’re not transparent. “We’re plenty transparent! Can’t you see?”


Because this is 2020, Facebook groups have sprung up — giving us parents a chance to commiserate and grieve decisions that from the outside, don’t seem to contain all the supporting data. Because the organization is large and has large-firm-style executives, responses from the top are appropriately corporate and vague, when there’s no reason that it cannot be as deep or as shallow as stakeholders want it.

Because “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” group members have reached out to people at lower rungs, to find out how the organization is handling COVID-19 infection reporting, quarantining, even the nuts-and-bolts of how they upgraded HVAC systems to better deal with the virus. All information to help parents understand the decisions and make us feel better about sending our kids to in-person school in a pandemic.

This should be their response: engage with their stakeholders as deeply as those stakeholders want. Plumb the depths of fears with data, and information. If both parties come together, transparently, the organization can begin to repair the damage to the trust that has taken place.

This should be the same thing that police departments should do, with people who question why and how they respond to people of color. The most common response has been to put up barricades to dialog and information.

At a time when we parents are facing an unknown virus that could potentially harm our children, schools are not engaging sufficiently with parents. Their #1 stakeholders should always be parents, who supply the raw material that is both the first input into and the last output of the educational system.

At the board meeting earlier today we learned two data points that perhaps illustrate that lack of trust: over 500 students have exited our school system, and the fill rate of substitute teachers has plummeted from 85% to 47% — forcing the district to increase substitute pay by $25 to $100/day.

The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic require us all to respond differently than before. Like everyone, I’m hoping science provides us with a solution and fast. But perhaps we can look at this as a gift — a chance to dump the usual organizational responses and build more cohesive and flexible enterprises that better serve all stakeholders.

For extra credit, begin researching “the hyper-connected enterprise”…

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