There is a deep and passionate conversation going among legislators right now around the issue of transparency. There is a growing group of legislators who feel that the legislature needs to change the way it manages its own business.
For many of us, the issue is simple — if we are spending the taxpayers’ money, the taxpayers have every right to know just how we are spending it, whenever they want to and regardless of their reasons for wanting to. Yet, many experienced, thoughtful legislators who are in politics to serve feel that transparency creates distractions that are not in the real interest of the public.
For the legislators who favor a more traditional, need-to-know approach, the media flap about House legal bills is a perfect case in point. After November’s debate about transparency regarding legislative spending, I published a rather dry post about the issue on my website which included a spreadsheet detailing all of the spending in House and Joint accounts over the past 5 years. The post was intended to further conversation about the need for an audited disclosure of House spending and a reform of House business practices. But before that larger conversation could begin, the information on my website led to the Globe story questioning the expenditure of public funds for house legal bills. Instantly, that became the issue. After several days of controversy, Speaker Deleo announced the appointment of reputable attorney to examine the bills.
Presumably that review will lay concerns to rest, but some feel that the transparent publication of the spending information caused damage, with no particular benefit. Instead of working on real legislative progress, we were wasting time defending ourselves. As we head into an election year, instead of seeing the great work that we have done in this session, the public will focus on one more mini-scandal.
More and more of us feel though that the need-to-know, stay-on-message approach to politics simply doesn’t reflect the realities of the media in the 21st century. Fifty years ago, there were a handful or editors and reporters who controlled the flow of information to the public. If you could get them to see things your way, you could define how the public saw things. Conversely, since information was hard to get, those reporters and editors depended on access to senior politicians in order to be able present fresh news. So, there was a relatively small media-political elite who worked closely together — they sometimes fought bitterly, but the number of players in the game was small and they depended on each other.
In today’s world, with a very limited investment of funds and effort, anyone can create a website or a cable show and develop a wide following. It is no longer possible to control the flow of information by managing relationships with a small group of people. Credibility comes only from openness — if one is not routinely open, then the dribble of new disclosures will never end and it will always be someone else who is driving the story and asking the questions. More and more political and business leaders are coming to understand that transparency is the best policy and my belief is that we are on our way to a stronger democracy in which public, for-profit and non-profit institutions are all more open and accountable.
My hope is that over the next year, the House will be able to reach a consensus to embrace the inevitable and move to a higher level of tranparency on spending and other issues.