The Open Government Illusion

Open government is often more rhetoric than reality.
December 2013

The easier it is for us to find important information about cities, counties and states, the better we’re able to report on topics of interest to our readers. But transparency isn’t just about us. It can help citizen organizations, good government bodies, advocacy groups, the press at large and even the general public. What’s more, accessible information makes it easier for legislators and city council members to drill down to the facts, creating more capacity for informed decision-making.

To be sure, progress has been made on a number of transparency fronts, and we certainly appreciate the additional data we’re able to find easily each year. That said, from our personal experience and conversations with experts in the field, much of the talk about heightened transparency in government is more rhetoric than reality.

Take so-called “online spending transparency,” or Web-based checkbooks that offer a clear and simple way to see where tax dollars are going. All 50 states have them. Optimally users would get, according to the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a host of “checkbook-level information about expenditures including those made through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending.”

Sounds swell, and in fact, PIRG’s studies of the 50 states have revealed consistent improvement. Each year, the organization has raised the bar on its criteria for grading the states. Still, in its most recent work, five states were given an F: California, Hawaii, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. According to Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for U.S. PIRG, in lagging and failing states—the dozen that got D’s and F’s—“you’ll find PDFs instead of searchable, sortable databases; you’ll find much more partial information about departments, and they generally don’t integrate economic subsidies.”

When it comes to disclosures of any kind there’s a huge chunk of information that’s as transparent as a window with the blinds closed. This includes a host of entities that generally don’t get their cash through the general fund. Starting the list are affiliated not-for-profits set up to provide government services and often funded through so-called “corporate funds” or grants, as well as public-private partnerships, authorities and a variety of other quasi-governmental bodies.

This has been a hot topic in Chicago. The city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, applauds Chicago’s efforts to put information about the main fund onto its website. But he is also concerned with transparency in the broad range of associated entities through which the city conducts increasing portions of its business. For information from those entities, interested parties may still have to use a Freedom of Information Act request, or diligently wend their way through a veritable maze of information sources.

He cites, for example, the city’s Public Building Commission, which manages building and maintenance of most municipal structures. “There is information put online proactively but it is catch as catch can,” says Ferguson. “You should be able to see who all the contractors and subcontractors are for a specific project. You should be able to see what the change orders were. And you should be fairly quickly able to see where cost overruns are.” For now, you can’t.

Information about job creation programs can also be hidden. The policy group Good Jobs First, under Executive Director Greg LeRoy, has been issuing report cards on how well states disclose company-specific deals to create new jobs. But he’s concerned about the absence of outcome disclosures. It’s one thing to disclose the existence of a new deal. It’s another to share information about the outcomes, such as how many jobs actually came to be.

Another example: Eric Berman, former deputy comptroller of Massachusetts, points out that the money spent on state universities is often opaque. “If you want to find information about the University of California system,” he says, “you might as well try to talk with God.” Questions like the amount being spent on maintenance for the dorm system, or salaries for professors and administrators are extremely difficult to answer using publicly accessible information.

Finally, let’s get back to the two of us and our cohorts in the press. More and more frequently we find that in order to talk to an elected or appointed public official, we need to go through public information offices.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. PR offices can be efficient and extremely helpful. But sometimes they appear more concerned about protecting their bosses from chatting with the press, than serving the public that pays their salary.

The National Press Club issued a statement in July that is about the federal government, but we think applies equally to states and localities: “Public affairs offices increasingly require that reporters conduct all interviews through the press office.” Such restrictions “were not in place so widely a few decades ago. Most reporters do not protest the practices, because they have never known another way.”

We have. And we found it a better way to get important and interesting information to share with our readers. We liked it better back then.

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