Vermont Needs Better Government Transparency

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, there was little dissent from the justices about transparency. If businesses and those with the means were now free to spend their millions trying to buy the electorate, the Court agreed the electorate should at least know who their would-be buyers were. But conservative congressmen disagree and are opposing the pending Disclosure Act.

And even here in green Vermont, the current state of transparency is pretty poor, actually. We’re well below Texas, which is ranked near the top, while we hover near the bottom in open government rankings.

Oh, I know, we all know, trust and like one another and are appalled when the occasional bloom of embezzlements or compensation scandals emerges. But do we honestly believe we’re all so virtuous that we needn’t be open and accountable to those who elect and fund us?

Transparency is a culture of openness, measurement and accountability. It not only enforces honesty, it restores trust in government function.

While digital technology has made transparency easier, it’s made privacy harder. But privacy in government proceedings can be dangerous. Government employees and elected officials must understand that openness and public scrutiny are part of their job description.

Fifty years ago, transparency was a Town Clerk saying, “Sure, help yourself, the information’s in those boxes. Just put everything back when you’re done.”

Transparency today requires investment. Campaign financing, state budgets and trends, employee contact information and salaries, police and criminal records, legislative committee work, all must be stored in searchable databases so that they’re accessible to citizens, journalists and advocates, alike.

Politicians generally dislike sunshine since performance data and outcomes measurement may well constitute a political liability.

Here are some commonly heard excuses to avoid it:

“The technology’s too expensive” – when actually the cost of hardware and software is constantly dropping as its functionality and utility rise. What cost $600,000 today, may cost $16,000 tomorrow.

“We put everything up on line and nobody looks at it” – when perhaps no notice was given and no one was told where it to find it or it has no search or navigation tools.

One way to claim transparency, while making posted information useless, is to change definitions and budgetary charts of accounts each budget year, so tracking trends becomes impossible.

In Vermont, we need to move from, “We’re all good people,” to “Trust and verify.” Trust in government institutions is at an all-time low, but a culture of access, consistent measurement and accountability can in time rebuild that trust. It also sets the bar higher for would-be leaders
Those who prefer to make decisions behind closed doors either believe they know better or fear the consequences of their decisions. A resulting shadow culture also deprives government of the hard data needed to improve it. It assumes that bad outcomes that see the light of day will be punished politically rather than becoming a basis for learning and change. Wise leaders want more information, good and bad, and regard negative results as positive opportunities.

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