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READER'S VIEWS: Governments need to be transparent

READER'S VIEWS: Governments need to be transparent

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The more transparent and open governments can be, the better for everyone.

To most people, transparency has to do with disclosure. Providing information about an issue, event, project, policy, program etc. and then providing a way for people to find and view that information.

Typically, that would suffice. However, when the term is applied in our system of government that particular definition does not go far enough to meet the public’s (expected) definition of transparency. In a democratic government, transparency should be defined as disclosure and discussion.

Transparency means helping the public understand how and why decisions that influence them are made. It means being accountable to the taxpayer. It's much easier to issue edicts with little or no explanation, give canned responses (we appreciate your input..), and clock out at the end of the day without a care because you have the power and no one is allowed to question you.

Simply put, government transparency enables the taxpayer to easily research and hold government appointed and elected officials accountable for how they spend OUR money.

Transparency in government is not a new issue. John Adams, 2nd president of the United States, wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.” In other words, a healthy system of government is an open government that allows all who desire to know to find the information they are seeking.

Government transparency means placing all financial and public information online in an easy-to-use, readily understandable system. Such a system allows taxpayers to see clearly how public servants are spending tax money, and gives citizens the ability to hold their elected officials accountable.

The Internet is the perfect platform for any and all transparency efforts in the modern world, and the high penetration rate of Internet in homes coupled with publically available internet at libraries means nearly every citizen has access to the internet.

The web represents an incredible tool for government and organizational transparency, if only by removing the arguments that cost or inconvenience are a barrier to making information available. We must not ignore the parts of our population that don't have convenient, reliable Internet access, but that's not a reason to hold off on using these tools.

So with costs being low, citizens desiring transparency, and with the Internet as a platform, government has no excuse to keep shielding its business from public scrutiny.

So if transparency is such a good idea, why do we not already have full transparency in government at all levels? The short answer: fear and unwillingness to change. Woodrow Wilson seemed to be onto something when he claimed, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” Transparency movements seem to always get the most opposition from the people who on paper have the most to lose: Politicians who have something to hide.

The public certainly wants government transparency. In a recent study by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA), approximately 75% of participants surveyed said the availability of government financial management information continues to be very important to the public. The same survey found that 71% of people claimed would use transparent government financial data to make informed choices at the ballot box if it were provided to them.

A transparent town government is one that makes the mechanics of its governing processes easily accessible and might even go to the trouble to explain what Section 30.07, Rule II, subsection (G) actually means in practice. A government that isn't transparent doesn't bother, setting the bar incredibly high for community members who might want to observe or participate in their activities. In the worst cases where officials benefit from obscure processes, they actually rely on how inconvenient it might be to access this kind of information.

Let our community leaders strive not just to meet the basic legal requirements of disclosure, but to proactively offer the documents, reports, data and on-the-record conversations that will make members of the public their collaborators in government efficiency, instead of their adversaries in a struggle for power and information.

All public officials favor open government in principle. Who would dare say otherwise? In reality, however, they are in a perpetual search for new ways to circumvent disclosure requirements–at best, because they view requests for records as a nuisance, and at worst, because they have something to hide, which could range from the merely embarrassing to worse.

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