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Home / News / David Strom: Transparency: Everybody in government says they like it, and government is as transparent as mud

David Strom: Transparency: Everybody in government says they like it, and government is as transparent as mud

David Strom

David Strom

There is no such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to making government work properly.

But the closest thing to it in this imperfect world is making government open up its books and its operations to public scrutiny — what the insiders call “transparency.”

Public trust in government is at a low point and has only one way to go: down. Right now people rightly believe that what they are being told by politicians and government officials is probably false, but they are left without any reasonable means to know what is truly going on.

The result is something like buying a used car: We ultimately depend on the assurances of the salesman, but we are also pretty sure we got screwed in the process.

When you are buying a used car, though, at least the possibility exists to get a Carfax to know the history of the vehicle. You can also have a mechanic give it the once over. Dealing with government, though, is a different thing entirely. All you have is the assurances of the fast-talking salesman.

Government officials and officeholders are all for talking about transparency, because they know the public and the press demands it, but when push comes to shove almost none of them practice what they preach. We all know that Obama, for instance, ran on the promise of having “the most transparent administration in history,” but not even his most ardent supporters would maintain that he has kept that promise.

Obama, instead, has used the Espionage Act to prosecute more journalists for publishing exposes than all previous presidents combined. Throw in the NSA, IRS, and myriad cover-ups and it’s not a pretty picture.

The point, though, isn’t that lack of transparency hides or mutes the importance of scandals. Scandals are juicy but aren’t the meat and potatoes of government administration.

Lack of transparency is a real problem because it aids and abets a culture of soft corruption, where no-bid contracts, hidden revenue sources, construction foul ups and ordinary incompetence are hidden from the public.

Hidden government is bad government. Accountability requires an accounting.

Minnesota, quite wrongly, takes pride in its transparency laws. Data practices laws nominally require a modest level of transparency, but the reality is quite different. Government data is supposed to be available to the public, but government contracts with outside companies and nonprofits that are not required to share the data on their government work.

The results are perverse. Many government grants and contracts are hidden behind a veil of secrecy; the claim is made that a project paid for with government funds is private simply because a non-government person or corporation did the work.

They Ely Timberjay, for instance, is taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court just to get documents on the construction of a public school. The company building the school refuses to reveal what ought to be public records. The project is no small thing: It is costing taxpayers $78 million — a princely sum anywhere, but astonishing in a small rural community. Yet at the moment the public is being kept in the dark.

Taxpayers have ponied up millions for the Target Center, but a private company runs it and refuses to share financials, despite the fact that they regularly make calls upon the public purse.

The Vikings Stadium will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, yet unless the law is reinforced much will remain shrouded in secrecy.

Lack of government transparency has become a particularly acute problem because government has become a much larger part of our lives. It costs more, but more importantly it directly impacts our lives more than at any time in American history. The huge sums of money at stake means that people’s incentives to manipulate the system are at an all-time high, and the consequences of a fraying relationship with the citizenry are much more dramatic.

Government secrecy and outright deception is having a corrosive effect on people’s trust in government. No one case destroys that relationship, but the accumulation is eroding — rightly, in my view — trust in the integrity of the system.

So let’s quit talking about sunshine in government, and start opening up the doors and windows.


David Strom is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, and Principal of Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm. 


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