Why Government Transparency is Important

Transparency in government (both state and local) is one of United for Missouri’s key issues. In fact there are many grassroots groups and political leaders from around the country calling for more transparency in government at all levels. So, what exactly is “transparency” and why is it so important? Simply put, government transparency enables YOU, the taxpayer, to easily research and hold your government / elected officials accountable for how they spend YOUR money at all levels of government.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, in his 1932 article called “What Publicity Can Do” that, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

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.

“Open government is critical to an informed public, and an informed public is critical to democracy.” – Judith Zaffirini

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.

Freedom of information acts, televised debates and published government audits are great examples of how the federal government has encouraged transparency in the past, but some real changes are needed to modernize transparency efforts. 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 and coffee shops means nearly every citizen has access to the internet. In fact according to World Bank the US had over 230,000,000 internet users in 2008 and that number has continued to climb since.

A government website that United for Missouri would qualify as transparent would post all financial and public information online in real or nearly real-time and in an organized, searchable and sharable manner. Openness at this level provides a much needed check and balance against corruption and misuse of government assets, while, at the same time revealing trends, showing mistakes that have occurred, and offering solutions to problems that the government officials may not have seen. Take a look at this following IBM video on data and the internet:

Transparency adds clarity and accountability to a system, that left unchecked, is prone to corruption. What’s more is that fiscal transparency has been shown to be a precondition to sound economic policy. The Interim Committee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its September 1996 Declaration, “Partnership for Sustainable Global Growth,” stated that “it is essential to enhance the transparency of fiscal policy by persevering with efforts to reduce off-budget transactions and quasi-fiscal deficits” (see the October 1996 World Economic Outlook, page xii).  We might take issue with some IMF policies and decisions but they are on target with the need for transparency.

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. Richard Eckstrom reiterated this point in his July 14, 2010 post for the Aiken Standard, a local newspaper in Aiken, South Carolina, “Greater transparency key to improving government, moving S.C. forward” when he said:

“Unfortunately, such transparency advancements are the kind of good-government reform that are routinely greeted with opposition. You see, wherever there’s government, there’s a politics-as-usual crowd – some call it the Good Ol’ Boy system – which stands in the way of reform. There are bureaucrats, lobbyists and career politicians who prefer the status quo. They neither seek nor accept change, because they get their power from the current system. They view any attempt to reform government as an intrusion onto their turf.”

Let’s be clear here, United for Missouri, and other grassroots transparency movements are calling for transparent and easily accessible information which is already public information. We are not looking to unearth government secrets or sensitive-non-public information; we are simply demanding that governments put their public-information, as defined by the law, online in a manner that is real or nearly real-time, searchable and organized.  Many government entities do put spreadsheets and the like on-line. However, they are often not easily found nor do they usually provide information beyond the particular period covered, usually the previous month.  Taxpayers would have to look at multiple files and spreadsheets to paste together the entire picture of spending.

Some people are concerned about the cost of doing this. Sure, there is a one-time cost associated with organizing and getting government data online, and there may be a small but continuous cost of keeping this data live and updated, but these costs have drastically dropped in the last 20 years and now are affordable for any business…especially one as big as a State or Local government. In fact, for the state of Missouri to create the Missouri Accountability Portal, the total cost ended up being approximately 1/10th of 1% of Missouri’s yearly budget. Creating and maintaining an online database has never been easier or cheaper than it is today. Moreover, there are many organizations, United for Missouri being one of them, that are willing to sit down and help governments organize and get their data online.

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.

So with costs being low, citizens desiring transparency, and with the Internet as a platform, government has no excuse to keep shielding its fiscal business from public scrutiny. Elected officials and governments are public servants and services; they work for YOU and ME the taxpayer.

Larry Stendebach
Co-Founder, StateSurge.com – a nationwide government transparency website.
UFM Blogger

I am the co-founder of StateSurge.com; a government transparency website that strives to deliver government data in a way that is useful to the people and help citizens interact with the government. I also work in Saint Louis, Missouri helping develope the technology needed in modern politics.
Larry Stendebach

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