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Clear Water

It has been fascinating to study performance of the “transparent” approach to communication adopted by councils over contamination of the Havelock North water supply.

We’ll put aside the initial slow response to connect the dots, as that’s disappointingly normal for all of us facing the uncertainty of contamination.

Once the water supply was fingered as the culprit, all governance bodies in the region adopted a “transparency” mantra – that is, we’ll tell you what we know, and what we’re doing. Reports were released within hours of getting them – and even before officials had read them.

The problem with transparency is that it can, as in this case, reveal uncertainty. All it does is show our audiences that we’re as helpless as they are. In the short term, that didn’t help. It frustrated people. The councils took a sustained beating of criticism.

But into the second week of the incident and aftermath, the transparency approach took the heat off the councils. The media and public understood the mystery and the challenges of solving it.

Now though, we only know the bore is surrounded by sources that are contaminating it, the cause is not known, and authorities are considering where to get water from now. The public is weary and transparency has revealed the ordinariness of those in charge.

We give and gain authority through a mixture of confidence, competence and ignorance. Transparency might bring us together on a problem, but we still want the people responsible to make the decisions and do the work. Over the long term, transparency undermines the basis on which the public have ceded control. That’s not a communications solution.

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