By Benita M. Dodd
What you don’t know can indeed hurt you, especially when it comes to government. Just ask this week’s alleged victim, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who claimed he knew nothing of the tradition of executive bonuses at AIG until after the company’s bailout by the federal government.
That news broke during this year’s “Sunshine Week,” marked March 15-21 across the nation and appropriately as springtime arrived with its promise of better days. Amid these financial hard times, the week highlighting the successes and challenges of transparency in government holds a promise of better days for taxpayers as they grow more aware and wary of how government uses their hard-earned dollars.
The good news for Georgians is that when it comes to shining a light on government, this state does well, according to a nationwide survey released this week and available atwww.sunshineweek.org/sunshineweek/state_govt_online_survey_09. Researchers found that in Georgia, “Web sites reporting financial disclosure and audit reports received particularly high marks from the field for their usability and ease of navigation. They can be found at www.ethics.ga.gov/Reports/Financial/Financial_ByName.aspx and www.audits.state.ga.us/index.html, respectively.”
The state has a long way to catch up with trailblazer Texas, however. Texas had a perfect score in the survey, providing free online viewing for 20 of the 20 categories of sunshine government that were investigated; Georgia had 14 and North Carolina led in the Southeast with 17 of the 20 categories covered. In January, Georgia’s transparency site, Open Georgia, went online. Available at http://open.georgia.gov/, it was required by the 2008 Transparency in Government Act, and is a free, searchable Web site containing state expenditures, financial and performance information, contracts and other information.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which recently launched a Transparency Initiative, has an interactive Web site, reportcard.gppf.org, to track, down to the penny, more than $14 billion in spending throughout Georgia’s 180 school systems and more than 2,000 schools. And when it’s up and running, the Foundation’s Web site, GeorgiaTransparency.org, will serve as a home base for Georgia transparency-related issues, resources and news.
By publishing information online in an easily understood format for its citizens, government should be ensuring full disclosure and open government. That, in turn, encourages greater civic participation, greater government accountability and mutual trust. Even better, such transparency encourages the civic curiosity that improves governance. In one recent example: After looking at local government spending recently, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation discovered that in metro Atlanta, the MARTA transit authority reports tax revenues of around $350 million, raised and imposed in Fulton and DeKalb counties, yet that revenue is not reported by Fulton or DeKalb. The omission raises a question: What’s more important, whether to omit the information in the counties because the transit authority’s collections in the counties are not required by law to be reported there, or whether potential industry and newcomers should have this information to take into account as they make decisions?
Concerned citizens and elected officials each have a civic obligation to involve themselves in oversight of government. Elected officials should find comfort in an open process so that skullduggery is ruled out; citizens should demand it to ensure checks and balances. It behooves taxpayers to know what their local elected officials are doing, why and whether there is a conflict of interest.
With transparency: When a contract is let, informed citizens close to home can evaluate whether it’s politics or good policy that selected the contractor. They know to ask, when the county attorney and the school board attorney are one and the same, whose interests take precedence when county and school board officials are on opposing sides. They can calculate whether a full-time employee would cost less than the part-time contractor. They can question what is covered in a bill that merely states “services rendered” without a line-item breakdown. They can gauge why project A was approved and not project B, which appears equally necessary. They can explore and compare how other governments tackle an issue.
In this era of earmarks and federal “stimulus” projects, citizen questions will increase. The state has acknowledged this and is acting to make the process open and transparent. Watch closely as more details become available on www.stimulusaccountability.ga.gov, the newly launched Web site for Georgia’s use of funds from the 408-page American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Department of Transportation’s Web site gives a breakdown for its $932 million in stimulus funds atwww.dot.ga.gov/informationcenter/programs/transportation/gastimulus/pages/default.aspx. Watch closely. It’s your government, and oversight is your responsibility. Trust, but verify
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 20, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.
It’s so often a lack of information that keeps us from getting involved. The Foundation is doing for the public what many could not do for themselves. Anytime that we’re given the truth, people can make good decisions.