Transparency as the best policy

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

15 replies on “Transparency as the best policy”

  1. I completely agree about the need for transparancy. While initially some one issue or other may catch attention, it does not mean that the great work that has been done will be ignored; to the contrary, as people are able to access more information they are more likely to learn about issues and legislative work that interests and affects them. Possibly even more important, citizen participation encouraged by transparancy must necessarily serve to make the democratic process stronger.

  2. Your points are valid and point to issues of great concern. We are lucky you are there working for the much needed transparency in government. Human greed and lobbyists with heavy pockets have led to lots of unfortunate decisions. We support your work 100%!

  3. I’m completely in favor of transparency in government. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

  4. It’s a no-brainer Will, there should be no room to entertain any further discussion of excuses. Answer the Globe and any other questions that come up.

  5. More transparency! Without a doubt, Will, it is the right move, and more transparency will foster more public trust.

    1. I don’t see how more transparency would foster more public trust. If you’re driving down a highway and you see a cop in the rear view mirror, nobody would be foolish enough to think you were trustworthy simply because you didn’t speed. The real test for integrity in anything is what you do when you know nobody is watching. I think the value of transparency for enhancing public trust is overrated. However, the clamor for transparency is certainly a predictable response to any betrayal of public trust.

      As for arguments against too much of it, unbridled transparency has potential to chill the creative process. I’m sure we have all had the experience of making sketchy and incoherent notes at a meeting, or dashing off initial drafts of various documents. If you knew all this would be open to public inspection, you might spend so much time worrying about what people will think that you’ll never say anything.

  6. Considering that the transition to complete transparency is bound to reveal a lot of material, we should expect that some of it will be misunderstood or taken advantage of for purposes other than bringing on better government, as a side effect of the benefits it will bring. We should transition as quickly as possible to transparency in all thing governmental (not just spending) that are in the public interest, and then be prepared to spend some time and effort in getting past the transition. Once we are at full transparency we can be more productive and transparency itself should no longer be an issue.

  7. Obviously there needs to be transparency, otherwise the public will continue to accuse the government of hiding things. But what do we do when we finally have transparency and then something that is one thing gets transformed into something else, like end of life counseling being turned into the funding of “death panels.”

    We’d have thought that the educated and thoughtful would prevail, but there are people out there that really believe end of life counseling means the govt will tell you when you die. With all the arguing that has taken place over public health care option when the opposition turns a line item into something it clearly isn’t there isn’t only going to have to be full explanation on money spent where, but what each line item is and it’s purpose.

    For instance, is money going to a foundation? What does the foundation do? Who works for that foundation? Is there a union contract? Is it religious? Did one of it’s members have the middle name of a terrorist? Of course this all sounds silly but when you see what’s happened, just be prepared for attacks on things that aren’t even there by whatever the opposing want to make it into or some writer who thinks he’s going to get his name out there.

    Yes, I support transparency and think it has to be there. Just be prepared for the extra time it’s going to take to defend every detail and have an explanation that runs deep.

  8. There is little to argue against some degree of increased transparency, however it will be very important to have a system in place that will “translate” what the legislature does (and how it does it) into a format that can be easily understood by the the people of the Commonwealth – this should be legislature-wide. Other posters have mentioned the need to prepare for extra time to explain various decisions (very true); my point is that it may need to go beyond that and occur at an institutional level as opposed to through individual’s offices.

    I will also say that increased transparency raises some concerns, as well. To echo an earlier poster, the feeling of always “being on the record” may have an impact of the way that ideas naturally evolve.

    I do support more transparency. I will be interested to see how the House approaches this issue and navigates between the need for openness and the need for legislators to feel comfortable presenting ideas that at first pass may be potentially “extreme” or unpopular.

  9. Thank you all for taking the time to provide this feedback.

    There is a broad array of different kinds of information that could be more available to the public. The one that is the current subject of conversation is pretty narrow — non-personnel spending by the legislature. Currently there is no disclosure of what was bought with the taxpayers’ money. The legislature has exempted itself from the procedures and disclosure requirements that are applicable to all executive branch agencies. It seems to me that spending, at a bare minimum, should be fully visible to the public. It’s a long way from disclosure of spending records to disclosure of personal reflective notes as Tino worried about. We can start with the basics and then see what’s next in line.

  10. I could not agree more. It is very frustrating not to know how our money is being spent. The more transparency the better.

  11. Will,
    I am glad that you embrace a higher level of transparency. It is long overdue in this state.
    Let’s only hope that the type of transparency that we obtain is far more impressive than what’s been promised and delivered at the national level, by Reid and Pelosi.

  12. I can only congratulate you on your political courage in the difficult decision to step down from your leadership post “to avoid public dissent”. This subtle message speaks volumes (to me, at least) about how much the self-protective herd mentality of a leadership group – one which fears public dissent while still wanting to appear to lead – impedes legislative as well as social progress.

    I hope your constituents will respect you all the more for this courageous act!

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