It is recognized that governments lie to their citizens and that we are, regrettably, governed by people who are sometimes corrupt. That is undesirable, but it is an unpleasant fact. Often choices made by the government are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse. That is why transparency is critical in government.
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis believed Sunshine is the best disinfectant for transparency and good governance. “The sunshine of openness dispels the darkness of secrecy” adds Mike Riley, Executive Editor, The Roanoke Times.
Most state and local governments have adopted freedom of information acts to have a more open government. However, despite the laws, gaining public access to data and information takes significant effort.
Taxpaying citizens can make better decisions when they are well-versed on the issues that concern them the most. Institutions reliant on taxpayer support cannot flourish in an atmosphere of widespread public distrust.
Politicians and political parties rise and fall. Political positions on policy issues change, and politicians can be voted out of political office or redistricted out of office in some cases. Highly partisan initiatives put in place by one administration are quickly discarded and replaced by the next.
Adopting a commitment to openness also means requiring more than simply responding to requests from the public. The government has a responsibility to distribute information in a timely fashion, enhance public access using electronic information systems and handle requests for information in a customer-friendly manner. Failure to take these steps will only result in public outcry of secrecy, and even accusations of malfeasance.
Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, wrote that “gradual restrictions placed on citizens each year are harder to reverse and, if not checked, eventually cut off their ability to know the workings of their own government.” Removing unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles should be the goal of every candidate for public office. Strangely calls for greater openness have encountered resistance from some quarters.
There are little doubt citizens are better off when information is known and flows freely. Both political parties point fingers, neither seems determined to act.
JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee