A special project by Contributor John Guevara, with Managing Editor Shane Nicholson
Last week, we introduced our “Contract with the Community,” a 10 item list of simple reforms and ideas intended to bring about a more open, honest and transparent government. Over the coming weeks, we will explore in-depth each of those 10 items, beginning this week with No. 1, “Transform government processes.”
It is our hope that at the conclusion of this process, your leaders in local and state government will commit to signing this contract with their constituents and strive to uphold its values.
Your can read our complete proposed Contract with the Community here, but we would love your input. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for how we can better improve this document and, we hope, better improve our government.
Transparency in government has been all the rage in the past decade. Organizations audit government websites for transparency. Government executives have appointed special commissions and built websites dedicated to transparency.
Transparency has been and continues to be highly visible in some way shape or form in government. Yet new candidates continue to promise transparency as if it never existed. People continue to clamor for transparency as though the doors of government are made of stone instead of glass.
We don’t need more transparency, which of itself is oxymoronic because being transparent is like being historic. You can either see through something or you can’t. We need to transform the way public bodies operate and share information.
Part of the problem with “transparency” is that it often results in a data dump of information. In many cases, Freedom of Information Act information requests, yield more records than the average person can process in a reasonable amount of time. A recent case saw Atlanta’s mayor comply with a request related to a bribery scandal that has engulfed the city government. That resulted in nearly 1.5 million printed pages of documents to be released. From the Columbia Journalism Review:
(Mayor Kasim) Reed, who said he made the decision in the name of “transparency,” may well have set some sort of open records record, according to government accountability experts. “It’s the most I can recall,” said Joey Senat, associate professor at the Oklahoma State University School of Media & Strategic Communications and author of a book on open records and other areas of media law, in reference to the sheer number of pages.
“I don’t know of another example” of an American mayor releasing so many documents on paper at the same time, said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, the Washington, DC nonprofit organization devoted to government accountability.
Apart from the magnitude of the release, there are serious questions about why a major American city in the Wikipedia age would forego the digital route in such a case, the same experts noted. “When you don’t release something electronically, when you don’t enable a search, it does have a relationship to accountability and accessibility,” Howard said.
At the press conference, Mayor Reed said the paper release was due to the need for redacting names and other information. Such a step is not necessary for large cities like Atlanta, given current digital capacities, said Howard. “This means they’re not aware of software to make redactions,” he said.
In other cases, FOIA requests are denied because they aren’t specific enough and compliance with the request is considered “burdensome” to the taxpayer funded entity. The public has no way of knowing what to request, allowing public bodies to avoid the transparency elected officials tout each campaign season. In Illinois, our legislators have taken the extra step to insulate themselves from the reach of FOIA and the protection it provides the citizenry. In a report last year, the Associated Press noted that, “Denial letters on behalf of Illinois’ top Democratic and Republican lawmakers said, among other things, that releasing the records could amount to a ‘clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy’ for individuals who contacted lawmakers without expecting their names to appear in the news media.”
Despite the challenges surrounding Freedom of Information Act requests, all public officials, elected or appointed, are required by state law to complete electronic FOIA training. They are also required to complete Open Meetings Act training.
Upon completion of the training, public officials have the opportunity to download or print a certification. One way to demonstrate accountability to taxpayers would be for each public body to post those completion certificates on their website, in the same way a bar must post its liquor license or a music hall its occupancy limits.
Another problem with transparency initiatives is a lack of context. For example, the City of Rockford’s home page includes a link to RockStat reports with a header which reads, “RockStat a more Accountable Community [sic].” Clicking on the link offers a brief description of what happens at RockStat meetings without offering much context to the reader. A citizen has no way of knowing how or why the RockStat meeting helps make Rockford a better place to live.
An even greater difficulty with transparency is poor organization. A person can visit the Amazon website looking to buy a toaster and easily make a purchase within 5 minutes. The same person can visit Winnebago County’s website to try and review a union contract and have to search through 100 pages of a pdf. Committee meeting minutes are often posted weeks after full board or council votes have been taken. More often than not, taxpayers are stuck observing how their money is being spent through the rearview mirror. They deserve more opportunity to observe through the windshield.
Transparency initiatives are poorly conceived, inefficiently marketed, often disorganized and largely burdensome to sift through. Government should do better than taking the hay bales from the barn and putting them in the field. It should be easier for any taxpayer to find a needle. To do that, we don’t need more transparency. We need to transform government.
DuPage County is leading the charge on transforming government through their Accountability, Collaboration and Transparency (ACT) Initiative. Since 2012, DuPage estimated saving taxpayers $100 million by eliminating the Fairview Fire Protection District; the DuPage Fair and Exposition Authority; the Timberlake Estates Sanitary District; and, most recently, the Century Hill Street Lighting District. Converting the DuPage Water Commission to a self-sustaining utility and eliminating the quarter-cent sales tax used to fund it has ostensibly accounted for a third of the savings, $36 million.
Edgar County Watchdogs challenges the elimination of the Fairview Fire Protection District as a savings to taxpayers. After the district was eliminated and the fire protection service was contracted to the Downers Grove Fire Department, the 187 homes in the old district were slapped into an Special Service Area (SSA) which increased the homeowners’ property taxes for fire protection by 300 percent. Since 2012, 16 new taxing districts have been created in DuPage, 15 of them SSAs.
Winnebago County Board Chairman, Frank Haney, has taken up the mantle of ACT, transforming the Winnebago County’s home page by adding the logo, and working diligently to implement his own version. “Naturally, ACT is intended to guide discussions about how we do business inside County government,” says Haney. “However, it is also the starting point for conversations related to external board appointments, granting dollars to external organizations, and how we approach working with public and private partners. We will continue to roll-out ACT updates in the coming weeks.” Observing government through the windshield should allow Winnebago County taxpayers ample opportunity to avoid potential pitfalls.
Haney has taken a page from a reform package former county board members presented to the board last fall. This Thursday, the board will vote to reform how departments submit budget amendments. Budget amendments are a transfer of budgeted tax money from one account to another or a request for more tax money.
According to Finance Committee Chairman Ted Biondo, members will receive the requests no fewer than 10 business days prior to the committee meeting, “instead of at 4 o’clock on the day of the meeting.”
More time to deliberate should mean better decision making from our representatives. It is an excellent first step towards transforming government.
Public officials should commit to more than transparency. They should commit to clear and concise transparency. Programs like the ACT Initiative can serve as excellent models for transformation, so long as it is a transformation for the better. Public bodies should be transformed so taxpayers can perceive and comprehend how their money is being spent before it’s spent, not only afterwards.