Column: Open government requires transparency
WASHINGTON -- Withholding information, or even appearing to keep the public at arm's length, creates a breach of trust between the American people and our institutions of government. Journalists, good government watchdogs, private citizens and ev...
WASHINGTON - Withholding information, or even appearing to keep the public at arm’s length, creates a breach of trust between the American people and our institutions of government. Journalists, good government watchdogs, private citizens and even members of Congress often butt up against a byzantine bureaucracy that makes it tough to track down answers.
Perpetual stonewalling arguably leads to a bigger chasm of distrust. Coming clean with disclosures of wrongdoing and facing up to accountability is a better way to restore good government. Of course, resisting secrecy and embracing transparency in the first place is the best way to secure credibility.
People get fed up when obfuscation throws sand in the gears of government.
History shows the federal bureaucracy acts on an instinct of insularity rather than openness. A culture of delay and deny is bad government. What’s worse, a government that holds itself to a different set of standards than the American public undermines fundamental principles of good governance and fairness.
From the nation’s commander-in-chief to the nation’s chief diplomat, public officials on the taxpayer dime need to remember they are conducting the people’s business. And public business needs to be available for public consumption, with few exceptions. From campaign finance laws to federal archive recordkeeping rules and procedures and the Freedom of Information Act, substantive measures are in place to preserve and protect the free flow of information for the public and posterity.
Why are these safeguards relevant to the average citizen?
Openness in government shows how and where tax dollars are being spent. It keeps elected and unelected officials accountable for their actions. It allows members of the public to see for themselves what might influence decision-making, from setting public policy to distributing federal grants to regulating prescription medicine. It helps make sure the public interest is served, not the self-interest of public officials.
Consider how a little sunshine could help:
n The lingering black eye at the IRS. The tax collection agency bungled electronic recordkeeping rules that further damaged its tarnished credibility resulting from the political targeting scandal. A damaged IRS damages the integrity of our system of voluntary compliance.
n The disgraceful revelations at the Department of Veterans Affairs which is still reeling because some VA health facilities kept secret waiting lists, end angering the health and lives of veterans seeking care.
n The questionable financing schemes at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on which my investigation has shed light. Congressional oversight, with the help of enterprising reporters, has raised questions about poor fiscal stewardship that steers scarce resources away from low-income families seeking affordable shelter.
n The galactic hole in the galaxy of emails kept and preserved by employees of the U.S. State Department. An internal watchdog reported of the 1 billion emails sent in 2011, only about 61,000 were archived.
Drafting legislation behind closed doors, keeping cameras out of the courts or using off-grid, personal email accounts to implement public policy or conduct affairs of state make it harder for the public to hold government accountable and harder for the government to uphold the public trust.
Government secrecy ought to be the exception, not the rule in a free and open society.
National Sunshine Week observes its 10th anniversary this year from March 15-21. It seeks to highlight the merits of transparency and open government.
What brings about open government? Transparency. For those who consider themselves above the law or think the rules don’t apply to them, compliance is an inconvenient truth.
I have found that getting to the truth often takes a bit of elbow grease, such as:
n conducting relentless congressional oversight, including investigative hearings, letters and independent audits;
n working to defuse anti-gag measures abused by federal agencies and government contractors that restrict disclosure of wrongdoing;
n launching a new, bipartisan whistleblower caucus in the U.S. Senate and strengthening whistleblower protections so that those who witness wrongdoing may come forward without fear of retribution or retaliation; and,
n making sure the Inspectors General have the tools they need to maintain independence and integrity when conducting internal investigations of waste, fraud and abuse within their respective federal agencies.
Congress legislated a key transparency tool five decades ago called the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to give the public the right to obtain public documents. Hundreds of thousands of requests have been filed seeking documents, rules, opinions, records and proceedings. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I am advancing reforms to federal FOIA laws that would make it easier for citizens to obtain public records in a timely way. Too often federal agencies string requests along for months and even years, or find creative ways to deny disclosure altogether.
Transparency provides a good reality check on corruption, negligence and wrongdoing that can infect any workplace. Those in the public sector need to remember they are paid by taxpayers and have the privilege and obligation to see that public services are carried out efficiently and effectively.
Sunshine Week offers custodians of the people’s business a good reminder that government officials are caretakers of hard-earned tax dollars, public entitlement programs and public resources. Whether employees are protecting national and homeland security or implementing food, drug and aviation safety laws, transparency helps pull back the bureaucratic curtain and educate the citizenry. Civic engagement is key to self-government. The more people know what is going on in government, the better for our free and open society.