On the Corner

A transparent culture

by Bob Docter –

Culture develops along with an unwritten series of norms. They are not orders and regulations, codes or rules. They’re not statutes within thick law books. They are more implied than explicit, more inferred than concrete, more sensed than understood. These norms emerge from the values, attitudes and beliefs of the people and become the accepted and acceptable ways of behaving in a particular group, organization or society.

The Salvation Army has a culture. It enshrines its values and beliefs and communicates them in the lyrics of songs, the preaching from the pulpit, and the lessons taught formally to children and adults.

The Salvation Army also has norms. These, primarily, rest on the value system of western culture, but, increasingly, we move toward a broader acceptance of multiculturalism while holding steadfast to our basic belief system.

Sadly, the basic belief is often expressed as a simple ceremony rather than a fully transparent expression of its full meaning.

This belief system is based on the articulation of Jesus concerning God’s desire for us to be part of his kingdom. As citizens of the kingdom of God, a message expressed by Christ innumerable times, we must exercise our faith in action, show mercy in all we do and commit to building a just society. These three concepts cannot be understood fully in isolation. They merge together and become one value, one attitude, one predisposition to behavior. As noted in the magnificent little book by Campbell Roberts and Danielle Strickland, just:imagine, our Army works well with the faith and mercy part, but we haven’t been able to balance with them the call for justice.

The General took a significant step in creating the International Commission on Social Justice at the United Nations. But it is not enough for us to leave it to the other person. We need to be involved and take a stand on issues in our own communities.

We are almost silent in an unjust, unloving world. Why do we quietly avoid this call? Why are we not more transparent in communicating our concerns on these matters?

In Isaiah 58, the prophet ridicules individuals who rigidly adhere to religious ceremonies like fasting without any understanding of the full meaning of the term.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him
and not turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn
and your healing will quickly appear.

Under the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act and the Freedom of Information Act, the federal government is required to keep the public informed of proceedings except in matters pertaining to the military and foreign affairs, the organization of troops or any other information “not in the public interest.” This phrase relates to activities of such organizations as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, etc. It does not relate, however to such issues as the Army Corps of Engineers and what an investigative panel found in their inattention to the canal that poured water into the 9th Ward of New Orleans.

No organization can maintain complete transparency—complete absence of secrecy. However, since 9-11 and with the passage of the Patriot Act, over the past decade a “culture of secrecy” seems to include more and more material, more information eligible to be kept secret. This is an example of the tensions between confidentiality and people’s right to know. It also reveals how much fear dictates secrecy—fear of embarrassment, fear of making a mistake, fear of discovery.

Unlike the federal government, The Salvation Army does not have a system for classifying the secrecy level of documents. This pleases me. However, superiors are quick to demand confidentiality from subordinates over matters that often need no confidentiality and to which none should be delivered. Anyone involved in a decision has a right to know the content of the decision.

The tension will always remain. Some matters, however, do require confidentiality.

A few years ago I had the privilege of serving as an elected member of the Los Angeles Board of Education. We were denied the opportunity to have “private” non-public sessions—what Robert’s Rules of Order called “executive session”—except when receiving legal advice from counsel or dealing with a personnel matter. This law was the substance of the Brown Act of the California legislature.

We need something similar to guide the use of “confidentiality” in administrative procedures.

We do make public an annual report, available on-line, that shows income and expenditures as well as statistics pertaining to how the money was spent. This is good.

At times, we may not do a good job of working with advisory boards. Some are, I believe, under-informed concerning many aspects of our work or our plans for the future. This is not good, and we need to find a better way of dealing with this matter. There appears to be very little accountability of officers and their superiors in relation to this matter. Certain items must appear on their agenda on a regular basis.

If advisory boards are under-informed—soldiers and adherents are very often kept in the dark unless the corps council has an organizational capability of learning about something—even, for instance, a corps closing.

I hope we keep people informed about matters they need to know and in which they have a great interest. Otherwise, we will reap a harvest of discontent, alienation, resentment and conflict. After all, the corps is more than a building. It is the body of worshippers.

Christ knew the value of open communication and readily told his disciples about the kingdom and equipped them to be effective messengers and witnesses. Only when we are open and transparent will we be truly effective.

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