Public officials and employees love transparency in the abstract. In reality: not so much.
Transparency in government is a crowd-pleasing election promise that gets set aside in practice. It happens in part because openness takes effort. It takes a daily commitment by public entities to provide access to records, to inform the public as to what is going on, and to allow participation. Transparency also invites scrutiny, and not all public officials and employees want that.
Open government also suffers because public officials often choose to favor other policy concerns over transparency. For example, when the New Mexico Legislature and governor chose years ago to limit access to applications for university president positions, they decided that other considerations, like the supposed quality of the applicant pool, outweighed the public interest in a transparent hiring process.
Transparency isn’t the only valid policy concern, of course. There are sometimes good reasons to keep some public records confidential, or to close parts of open meetings. For example, the state tax department is required to keep information in tax returns private, which protects the privacy interests of individual taxpayers.
But when it comes to public business, transparency is entitled to more weight than almost every other policy concern. The reason is simple: government is omnipresent, and transparency is fundamental to good government.
Every person in our state, one way or another, relies on the operation of government. And every person funds it. We all have a constant interest in how our government runs. Efficient, dependable and effective government is a requirement for a thriving society.
And that requires both trust and oversight. Our government reports to us; when it enacts laws that limit what information we can get from it, or puts up obstacles to obtain it, we lose faith in the system. Public entities have to be open and straightforward about how they are devoting our resources and applying our laws; when they are not, we question their integrity. On the other hand, when the government allows us access to its inner workings, we inherently trust it more.
Accountability is key to any operation, including government. Transparency is one of the primary deterrents to government corruption. The more access we have to the daily operations of government – specifically, where the money goes – the less likely that we will be victimized by those with a duty to serve us.
Access to government is not just about strong transparency laws. It also relies on a commitment by public officials to comply with those laws. A robust public records law is of little use if a public body does not adequately fund compliance with the law or training of its employees. Too many governmental entities resist providing access to their operations, delaying responses to records requests or looking for ways to provide the least possible information. Open government requires the opposite mindset: a dedication to providing the greatest possible access, and an understanding that doing so is one of the core functions of government.
Transparency erodes without a constant effort to maintain it. Every statute that is passed with a confidentiality provision, or portion of a public meeting that is closed off to attendees, or delay in responding to a records request, eats away at effective government. Transparency must be more than a politician’s favorite buzzword; instead, it requires a recognition that it is fundamental to democracy, and it takes constant effort to carry out.