There’s a way for honest politicians to restore trust in institutions: transparency | Opinion

Years ago, I sat down with an investigative journalist to learn more about her work. I assumed her political views leaned leftward, and I was correct, but her skepticism of government was as strong as any right-leaning ideologue.

She came by her cynicism honestly. Despite her personal views, she had been lied to — actively or by omission — for decades by elected and career government leaders.

As a result, she embodied the old journalistic standard, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

You’d think technology made it much easier to ”check it out” today when investigating the government. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Recently I sought documents from city government, a county anti-crime fund, a suburban police department and a private sports team. In each case, even getting a response to my query took weeks. In my experience, government organizations are no better at responding than a private corporation with no transparency obligation at all.

Even when city governments set up web portals to receive and assign public records requests, there’s no guarantee the request will be honored — or even competently assigned.

The problem: Open and transparent government is often seen as a burden by those on the inside; an extra step or even an obstacle to good government. There’s a bias toward packaged solutions – a web portal revealing every financial transaction or an online form for requests. They may create an aura of openness but require an exact knowledge of what you’re seeking; a game of cat and mouse.

Truly open government requires a culture shift — from responding to requests to initiating transparency in the first place. Openness and transparency are fundamental values to any unit of government in a democracy. Yes, it’s extra work. But that extra work activates and engages, creating better-informed and more-involved citizens who can, in turn, provide input that supports thoughtful and responsive policymaking.

Yes, I’ve been to plenty of public meetings regarding streetcars and airports and housing developments. I understand how public officials wince at the thought of sharing more information. But those hostile crowds are often frustrated as much by opaqueness as by policies they oppose.

Broad, ongoing public participation increases the responsiveness and effectiveness of government, which benefits from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. Transparency helps public officials do their job more effectively, creates an important public record of how they worked to meet the public need and increases public confidence.

A 2012 report Recovery Act Transparency: Learning from States’ Experience followed up on federal spending from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, meant to use federal spending to dampen the impact of the Great Recession. Researchers found that while data was used widely (if unevenly) by journalists and activists, “state officials were the principal users of Recovery Act data as it allowed them to manage and track federal spending in near-real time.” Furthermore, the report concluded, “transparency requirements served as a deterrent, which contributed to low rates of fraud, waste, and abuse of funds.”

A government that tracked and shared information on business openings, licensing applications, inspections, approvals and the like could help facilitate business growth. If things are moving too slowly, good data collection helps quickly identify and address obstacles.

Perhaps most importantly, transparency builds confidence in our governing institutions. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory reports:

“Strong transparency policies result in a rise in the perceived benevolence of government among participants with little prior knowledge and a low level of general trust in government. In contrast, weak transparency policies result in a decline in the perceived competence of participants with little prior knowledge and a high level of general trust in government.”

We’re more likely to give public leaders the benefit of the doubt if we believe they’re being forthright. A good reputation, especially in an age of declining trust in institutions, is an important asset for public officials.

Yes, today’s politics feel crazy. People on all sides seem to believe the wackiest things about the government and its leaders. It is a frustrating landscape even for a lowly opinion columnist. The path to sanity is not less information; but more.

Patrick Tuohey is co-founder of Better Cities Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on municipal policy solutions, and a senior fellow at the Show-Me Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to Missouri state policy work.