State Comptroller Kevin Lembo deserves a high-five. This week, Mr. Lembo’s office unveiled Open Connecticut, a transparency hub for the state’s budget, spending, borrowing, and tax breaks. Costing a grand total of zero dollars, the Comptroller’s website now provides a clearinghouse for anyone trying to dig into the state’s finances.
Government transparency is an initiative that most everyone can support, at least in principle. Several academic studies point to the value of doing so. One study, led by Harvard Professor Jeffrey Alt, found a statistical link between gubernatorial approval and fiscal transparency, noting: “. . . the governor receives more favorable job approval ratings, on average, in states that have more fiscal transparency . . . a unit increase in the fiscal transparency index increases average approval rating by 1.5 percent.” Another study found that the “evidence suggests that e-government can increase process-based trust by improving interactions with citizens and perceptions of responsiveness.”
An October 2007 study by George Mason University’s Jerry Brito points to the possibilities of expanded government transparency. In his paper “Hack, Mash & Peer: Crowdsourcing Government Transparency,” Dr. Brito cites numerous examples of how making previously undisclosed information widely available reaped big rewards.
One example from the private sector was the case of Goldcorp, a small gold mining company in Canada. Facing bankruptcy, the company put their proprietary geological data on the web and issued a challenge to the public: help us find the gold. According to the study, “Participants in the challenge identified 55 target areas of the mine that were previously untried by the company. Eighty percent of those newly identified targets yielded substantial amounts of gold and resulted in the company’s turnaround.”
Connecticut is not alone is striving for greater government transparency. Rhode Island Go. Lincoln Chafee announced this week an expansion of that state’s initiatives. “Chafee said over 18 months, on a rolling basis, the state will continue to add financial reports, audits, forms and other financial information such as contracts, grants and quasi-public agency expenditures.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was lauded by the Asbury Park Press: “For the most part, Christie and his administration have been an open book.”
Lembo stands out for his leadership on the issue. His calls for increased transparency of corporate handouts have been viewed in some quarters as implicit criticism of the Governor’s economic development strategy of dramatically increasing corporate handouts. “There are other states that have figured out how to bring greater transparency to this whole process and still encourage economic development,” Lembo adds. “We have a lot to learn from them.” If so inclined, one could read Gov. Malloy’s State of the State Address as a subtle rebuke of Mr. Lembo’s position: “The key is making government an active partner rather than a bystander who watches markets develop elsewhere.”
Carrying the subtlety point a bit further, you could also point to this line from Malloy as a dig on Lembo: “Anyone who tells you that the budget we passed two years ago didn’t do its job, that it didn’t make real change in how we approach our finances, is simply not telling the truth.” Though criticized by the governor’s staff, Mr. Lembo has steadfastly pegged the state budget deficit higher than the governor.
Whatever the reason, transparency is a key component of the public trust and it opens exciting new possibilities for government reform. Someone give Mr. Lembo a high-five.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com