Transparency in government

Everybody’s talking “transparency” these days. I used to think that transparent meant nearly invisible, like glass is transparent, but its meaning seems to have morphed into exactly the opposite. So when we talk about transparency in government today, what we mean is making the operation of government clearly visible.

Government is anything but transparent, from the Feds right on down to the most local. The NSA is the ultimate example of a lack of transparency, as Edward Snowden so effectively demonstrated. Government spying on Americans is at an all-time high, and until Snowden’s revelations nobody had any idea of just how pervasive and all-consuming Government snooping had become. Of course, the idea of transparency in spying kinda wrecks the point of it all.

As for the rest of the Federal apparatus, it’s mostly out of sight as well. Does anyone actually believe CSPAN reveals anything but the voting outcome of legislative activity? Who is meeting with whom and deciding what remains a total mystery, except perhaps for the NSA, and they’re not talkin’. Most of us figure decision-making in Washington is a 21st Century version of “American Hustle”, a money and favor-filled legislative free-for-all. Transparency? You gotta be kidding.

As for State Government, who knows what it’s up to? If the activity at the Fed level is opaque, what’s happening at the State is more of a black-out. What little information trickles up to the level of the daily paper is merely the weekly highlight and almost always pertains to some sort of screwy budget deal or environmental policy dispute. Who our state representatives met with yesterday remains notoriously out-of-sight, let alone what was discussed or if any campaign cash was involved. Transparency at the State level is like fishing for catfish barehanded; you can’t see much of anything, have to dig around in the mud, and know you’ve found something when your hand gets bit.

Down at the local level it’s not a lot better. Sure, you run into the Mayor in the produce aisle and City Hall is smack in the middle of town, but nobody really knows who’s officially talking to whom about anything. The Brown Act supposedly prevents council members and commissioners from communicating with more than one other member of their body outside of a properly-noticed public meeting, but what other conversations are happening or the topics covered are shrouded in mystery. Like CSPAN, local cable TV covers the meetings but nothing that leads up to it.

So here’s a modest proposal: Post the complete calendar of meetings of public officials, both phone meetings and meetings in person online. On a local level, this would include all members of the City Council and the top tier of city staff, including the City Manager and Department Heads. The posted information should include the day, time, name and affiliation of the person or persons in the meeting, and the topics. It would be posted weekly online, and a link to each calendar would be available on the City website. What can I say; it’s a start.

Transparency in government sounds like a good idea, but the reality is government loves secrecy, especially about itself. Sharing who’s talking to whom on a local level, about what and when, would be an excellent way to begin to light the darkness.

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