Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Importance Of Being Transparent

Someday -- hopefully soon -- transparency will come to Connecticut, and it will change the whole political landscape. Transparency opens government of any kind – state, municipal and federal – to as many people as are affected by political transactions, which is to say all citizens of the state.

The concept is shockingly simple: Put on the internet all governmental transactions, including pricing, and the flow of information will be enhanced between the government and the people, the government and its vendors, the government and intergovernmental agencies and the government and the media. It is crucial to require that no legislation shall be passed until five days have elapsed after the posting. In this way, any possible disadvantages in bills may be corrected though input provided by watchful citizens.

It is often said that the media is our public watchdog, which is true enough. But transparency turns every citizen who has access to a computer into a public watchdog.

There are three kinds of transparency: opaque transparency, semi-transparent transparency, and transparent transparency. The opaque version is simply pretense at true participatory democracy; the semi- transparent kind creates the illusion of transparency; and then there is the genuine article.

The key to transparency is that all governmental functions should be included in the mix. Would that include teacher contracts or contracts between towns and any vendor that accepts tax money from the state or municipalities?

It would. “All” means all.

Florida is a true transparent state. According to Florida records, House Bill 971, passed in March of this year “requires the posting of ALL expenditures, regardless of amount, and now requires the posting of all salaries, revenues and agency indebtedness.” The bill “provides access to up-to-date information on state government revenues and expenditures through a single searchable website, accessible on http://www.myflorida.com/.” The website includes information “on the date, amount, and source of each expenditure, affording Floridians an unprecedented level of access to information on government spending.” The bill also establishes “a process for integrating information on local government revenues and expenditures into the Transparency Florida site.”

Apart from providing important information to citizens that permits them to rate the effectiveness and necessity of bills and contracts, such open government sites present advantages to state and municipal governments as well. Public information of this kind serves as advertisements for out of state vendors who may be able to provide lower cost materials and services to state and town governments. And the streaming of information into one site, provided with a search engine that can find the answer to any query, makes the business of government simpler and less intimidating.

The Florida bill passed with overwhelming public support, which is not to say that it had the support of what one might call the “permanent government,” status quo politicians and their hangers on in municipal and state government. The press – or what is left of it – supported the idea because the media generally believes that exposure is cleansing.

To push through the idea in hidebound Connecticut would require some support among good government types not particularly attached to any specific political party, the media and politicians who believe in transparency for the right reason. Transparency is important because it opens information floodgates that adjust and correct the political messages of backroom politicians who depend upon secrecy and closed door politics to advance their narrow interests over the interests of the general public.

The idea, revolutionary in its simplicity, simply needs a push. In Florida, it proved to be a winning campaign issue for politicians previously unable to break the incumbent glass ceiling that prevents good men and women with good government ideas from winning seats in the legislature, municipal governments and gubernatorial offices.

Once established, it opened a window on the political world for a whole host of people who subsequently shed their apathy and became involved in government. The only losers were a few nay-sayers who surrendered their positions to candidates for office who argued that secrecy distorts democracy and is the enemy of a government unafraid to include the people in their deliberations. Thomas Jefferson’s notion that a democracy is that form of government in which governors fear the people was quoted, as well as its corollary: that in a monarchy, people fear the government.

Should some enterprising politician fashion a like bill for Connecticut, it will be vigorously and underhandedly opposed.

The opposition will be defeated.
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