Transparency is one of the cornerstones of government accountability. It reinforces every form of accountability set forth in our recommended government accountability framework—political, organizational, professional, legal, civic and external. However, its frequent repetition as a political platitude has converted it from a vital principle to a meaningless cliché.
The time has come to redefine transparency, in clear, measurable terms that can govern our expectations and guide our leaders. At its core, transparency calls for the timeliness, accuracy and utility of public information. When it works, it bolsters government accountability in the short-term and public trust in government in the long-term.
Defining the Challenge
We need a modern transparency standard, one calibrated to our times, but reflecting the timeless work of others. In 1948, the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 19” confirmed that governmental entities have an obligation to release essential information to their citizens. In 1966, the United States Freedom of Information Act established standards for classifying and obtaining government information.
In the decades since, many organizations have emerged to promote transparency and an informed, engaged electorate, including Transparency International (1993), the Sunlight Foundation (2006) and the Open Government Partnership (2011). These groups and dozens of others tirelessly advocate best practices for the timeliness, accuracy and utility of governmental information disclosures.
Developing an actionable transparency standard faces several formidable obstacles, such as:
- The sheer volume, formats and variety of public information continue to mushroom
- The information environment continues to evolve due to such factors as technology changes
- The transformation of conventional news organizations (e.g., local newspapers) coupled with the onslaught of social media
- The risks inherent in disclosing too much public information continue to expand (e.g., privacy, security and confidentiality)
- The legal parameters, organizational capabilities and citizen involvement associated with information collection and data transparency vary widely among jurisdictions
These concerns, while serious, should not stand in the way of adopting meaningful standards for transparency and satisfying every citizen’s right to know.
Why Transparency Matters
In 2019, the residents of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and their elected officials, received two indelible civics lessons on transparency. The first involved the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and its failed sales tax increase initiative, the second the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education and its Superintendent’s resignation.
Mecklenburg County –The Board approved an operating budget of just under $2 billion with a nine percent (9%) spending increase, but the approved budget did not fully reflect the Board’s goal to “do big things” for the County. Instead of using the annual budget process to inform the public about its plans, the Board placed a quarter-cent sales tax increase—with well over half of a forecasted $50 million in new revenue intended for unspecified arts-related grants—on the fall 2019 ballot.
The Board’s proposed sales tax increase was quickly exposed as vague, especially concerning the use of these funds. In the face of mounting public criticism of the proposed tax increase, the Board flipped the campaign focus to other funding priorities, namely K-12 education and public parks. While both funding priorities received substantial increases in the approved budget and enjoyed widespread public support, the Board’s failure to be transparent in building support for arts-related projects created a “bait and switch” perception that, coupled with skepticism about other County-wide issues (e.g., affordable housing budget and aggressive ambulance fee collection techniques), eroded public confidence in the sales tax plan.
The well-financed “Yes” campaign for the sales tax increase included daily email messaging, brochure mailing and radio-TV ads. The under-funded, largely word-of-mouth opposition campaign received a welcome boost from a Charlotte Observer editorial against the increase. The Board’s leadership, in an acknowledgement of growing public concerns about the sales tax proposal, stated that they expected the County’s citizens to “hold us accountable to deliver on our objectives”. On November 5, 2019, the voters did exactly that, rejecting the sales tax increase by a 15-point margin.
The lesson is simple. Transparency demands more than mere rhetoric, it demands timely, accurate and useful information, especially about new initiatives. The commitment to transparency and citizen engagement must begin early, at the start of the planning process for any big project, well before any decision to place a proposal on the ballot. And the information must be thorough, accurate and understandable. In short, it should help citizens make an informed decision about the issue at hand.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) – Less than two years after assuming office, in January 2019, the Board of Education awarded the CMS Superintendent a contract extension and a sizable raise. Afterall, the District appeared to be making progress in achieving enhanced educational goals. However, in July 2019, the CMS Board suspended the Superintendent without advance notice or explanation. Shortly thereafter, on August 2nd, the Superintendent resigned, departing swiftly without severance pay.
When asked about the surprising turnabout in the Board’s confidence in the Superintendent, Board members responded that State laws protecting employee privacy prevented them from commenting on any departure details other than the effective date. At first glance, the Board seemed as transparent as the law allowed under the circumstances.
However, this was not the first time that a CMS Superintendent left under mysterious circumstances. In 2014, a Superintendent resigned for “personal” reasons followed by internal reports of the departed Superintendent’s abusive leadership style and a “culture of fear.” Some questions arose as to whether the Board ignored the Superintendent’s behavior for too long or framed the departure as a personal resignation to minimize public scrutiny. The Board’s limited oversight and transparency did little to build public confidence.
In view of the 2014 incident, public and media cynicism regarding the CMS’ 2019 handling of the Superintendent departure was entirely justifiable (and foreseeable). One can argue that the Board acted promptly when irregularities involving the Superintendent’s behavior came to their attention and appropriately by imposing a suspension and resignation without severance pay. But, since Board members acknowledged the need to strengthen the selection process in 2014 and the problem reoccurred in 2019, they should have adopted a higher transparency standard.
The lesson here is that public officials must always consider the context for transparency. Even when privacy laws prevent the disclosure of certain information (e.g., sensitive personnel facts), some situations require more than cryptic statements about statutes and confidentiality. For example, criminal activity and other egregious behavior cannot be overlooked or concealed. In the case of CMS, the reoccurrence of a poor leadership staffing decision dictated a tougher transparency standard. At the very least, it demanded a timely, accurate and useful report of what happened (including a clear acceptance of failings) and a plan for mitigating future risks to the organization and the community.
Recommendations for a New Transparency Model
In this era of declining public trust in government and other civic institutions, civic leaders must convince citizens that they and their governments are accountable and transparent. They must adopt more effective ways to navigate the ever-changing landscape in which they operate. To that end, we offer the following recommendations:
- Establish a tougher transparency standard for state and local governments, one that effectively balances short-term security, privacy and confidentiality factors with critical strategic values such as ensuring public accountability and restoring public trust
- Foster greater legal uniformity among state and local governments (and more informed expectations among citizens) by developing model transparency statutes for promoting and enforcing new transparency standards
- Make transparency a core competency for public leaders and encourage suitable associations to increase transparency training offerings (e.g., National Governors Association, US Conference of Mayors, International City/County Managers Association and state county associations)
- Reinforce routine transparency protocols through policy, procedures and training to anticipate the inevitable disclosure crises (rather than having to “circle the wagons” after they arise)
- Continually improve the presentation of information, including format, style and level of detail, to maximize its understandability and utility for the public and develop guidelines to assist state and local governments with the presentation of vital information
- Adopt an aggressive citizen engagement strategy that fosters dialogue with the public, challenges staff to share pertinent information and reconciles the potential negative consequences of disclosures with the public’s right to know and
- Establish clear timeliness targets to accelerate responses even when laws, standards or circumstances prevent the release of detailed information
As Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” To restore public faith in government, public officials must anticipate disclosure needs and challenge conventional wisdom about privacy, confidentiality and other disclosure constraints. Transparency is essential in times of crisis, but also in day-to-day operating matters; it must be a practiced habit, not a sporadic damage control mechanism. Transparency is about trusting the public and welcoming their input, not avoiding criticism. Without genuine transparency, public accountability will likely prove elusive.
Bruce Anderson, one of Civic Way’s advisors, and a long-time consultant to government and public utilities, wrote this column.