March 27, 2009
Transparency and Accountability: The Simple SolutionsBy Paul Miller
Do taxpayers have the right to know how their money is being spent? Do politicians have an obligation to their constituents to make basic information such as budgets, contracts, salaries and taxes easily accessible online? Obviously these questions are rhetorical. No rational individual would ever claim that a dishonest and secretive government is a positive form of representation. A government that is transparent and accountable to the people is possibly the only ideal that spans the ideology spectrum.
Then why is open and honest government the exception instead of the rule?
There is no doubt that "open government "and "honest government" are viewed by the majority of the population as oxymorons. However, you can also place the words campaign promise at the top of the same list. Everyone from the President of the United States to your neighbor, who recently campaigned for a local school board seat, promised more transparency if they are elected. Unfortunately, once victory is achieved, political realities set in and power at any level, too often corrupts.
President Obama made government transparency a focal point during his bid for the White House. However since taking the oath of office two months ago, his administration pushed through the largest spending bill in U.S. history with a complete disregard for transparency.
During the campaign, Obama promised that all legislation will be posted online for 48 hours prior to a vote. The so-called "economic stimulus" bill is nearly 1100 pages and the American people as well as our elected representatives in congress, were given a mere 10 hours to review it before it was called to the floor.
If the President and the bill supporters believe this bill is good for America, why hide it from the people you claim to be helping? What are they afraid of?
This past week in Colorado, Senate Bill 57, also called the Public School Financial Transparency Act, which simply require public school districts to put their spending online, died in committee. How could any responsible public official forbid parents from seeing how their tax-dollars are spent educating their children?
The answer to that question is simple: Taxpayer-funded lobbying associations and National Education Association.
How many parents are aware that school districts use taxpayer money for political lobbying purposes? Does the NEA want mom and dad to have easy access to teacher's salaries, health care costs, pension payouts as well as performance reviews? The answers respectively are none and no.
If parents understood the financial realities of how their money is spent, the education system would actually be accountable to children, not unions and lobbyists. Politicians would fear the wrath of voters more than the NEA. The same can be said for our entire political system.
Over 400 years ago, Sir Francis Bacon said, "knowledge is power." When it comes to all levels of government, an informed citizenry can greatly diminish the power and influence of special interests groups. Well-informed voters will always hold elected officials accountable. This notion keeps most politicians awake at night.
Currently, elected officials from Washington to your local village trustee are failing miserably to grasp control of the economic crisis. Implementing government transparency projects for the federal, state and local level may hold the answers to getting us out of this quagmire.
Nebraska state treasurer Shane Osborn recently addressed transparency in the Wall Street Journal. He rightfully bragged about the economic situation in his state compared to the rest of the country.
Osborn attributed Nebraska's success to "an inquiring public that demands to know how tax dollars are spent." He credits the public's desire for transparency as his "inspiration" for creating a website that "discloses every aspect of state government spending".
There is no doubt that people are demanding more transparency and accountability from their government. In July 2008, the Sam Adams Alliance created the government transparency website Sunshine Review. The goal of this open-wiki source is to empower everyday citizens to serve as government watchdogs, giving them the tools to bring open and honest government to the state and local level. Within six months of the website's launching, over one million pages have been viewed.
Politicians all over America are abiding by the websites transparency recommendations and government agencies are using Sunshine Review as a resource when creating transparency projects. The success of Sunshine Review as well as the economic climate in Nebraska is proof that an involved and knowledgeable citizenry can do what the mainstream media has failed to accomplish-make open and honest government a reality.
Regardless of political affiliations or ideology, it is ludicrous to believe that politicians left alone to use their own objective judgment will bring economic prosperity back to our great nation. However, regardless of the issue, a nation of concerned citizens utilizing modern technology to demand their government be transparent and their elected officials be held accountable, can create a nation that, dare I say, could be better than the Founding Fathers envisioned.
Paul Miller serves as Communications Director for the Sam Adams Alliance, a non- profit, new media advocacy group. Opinions expressed are not endorsed by any organization and are strictly those of the author.