Making government more open and accessible is easy for politicians to say but usually hard to implement. At the same time, government transparency is often difficult to see, though its effects are plainly evident. In recent days, these truths have been as brightly displayed as holiday decorations.
The sad but necessary fruit of transparency was harvested on Wednesday this week when the audio from the 911 calls about the Sandy Hook school shooting were released to the public. Many people have not yet steeled themselves enough to listen to the recordings and maybe never will. The significance is in the public’s ability to hear the audio rather than in the need to actually listen to them.
In the case of the Sandy Hook 911 tapes, there is a strong case to be made that the availability of the information was more necessary than actually listening to them. But in the case of the salary increases at the Board of Regents for Higher Education, access to the numbers was only half the battle.
After last year’s “mistaken raises” debacle at the Board of Regents, in which 21 people received big pay hikes without the approval of the board, transparency advocates were alarmed that a CT Mirror request for a list of employees receiving pay raises was initially denied.
Disclosure of salaries is routine in the other branches of state government and local governments in Connecticut are slowly adopting the practice. The assertion that salaries were not public information boded poorly.
But the details revealed the challenges of implementing transparency — the data often reveals more than just names and numbers. It turns out that the raises are partly awarded based on evaluations and there was some concern about revealing the results because it would not be difficult to identify both the highly rated employees and those that fared poorly on evaluations.
Aside from the fact that a student, for example, would benefit from choosing classes with good professors instead of bad ones, the situation does raise important questions about the line between personnel data that should remain confidential and the public’s right to know how tax dollars are being spent.
Ultimately the need for transparency won out when Board of Regents President Gregory Gray signaled intent to release the raise amounts at the end of December.
Another blow for transparency was struck when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed Executive Order No. 38, creating a searchable database of state aid to businesses. Comptroller Kevin Lembo had offered the proposal during the 2013 legislative session, but the Senate failed to vote on the bill before the clock struck midnight back in June.
Although the move seems likely to create another transparency database under the auspices of the Department of Economic and Community Development rather than integrating such information into the already existing Transparency.CT.gov website (one wonders if we will soon need a database of transparency databases), it remains nonetheless a victory for those who would like to know how state government spends tax dollars.
The work of improving government transparency continues not just at the state level but also at the local level. In the coming weeks, the Yankee Institute will release a study of the local government websites for each of the 169 cities and towns in Connecticut. The “transparency audit” evaluates the extent to which local governments make information available on their websites based on a 40 item, 100-point grading system. An initial review of every website was conducted in July 2013 and the results shared with local elected officials in August. A follow-up evaluation was completed recently to measure improvement since the initial evaluation.
The results are mostly encouraging. The vast majority of municipalities do a decent job of posting contact information for local elected officials and administrators, meeting calendars, minutes, agendas, budget information, tax information, and other key data. There remains a great deal of improvement to be made, but there is cause to be pleased.
Reducing the information asymmetry between government officials and citizens has been a problem since antiquity, but modern tools of communication offer the promise of reducing this imbalance more than at any other time in history. The task is often challenging but well worth the effort.
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