Open Government is Good Government
The Governor’s Task Force on Public Integrity
My name is Deirdre Cummings and I am the Legislative Director for MASSPIRG. MASSPIRG is a 35 year old, non-profit, non-partisan member-supported public interest advocacy organization that works to protect consumers, enhance public health, promote public transportation and foster responsive, democratic government.
I am here today to urge you to include transparency – in particular – budget transparency, in this committees recommendations on ethics reforms. The Commonwealth can get a handle on its governance problems only if we examine the issue comprehensively and offer new tools for transparency and accountability.
Transparency and accountability go hand in hand. A transparent government allows citizens, the media, and watchdog groups to hold government officials accountable. The ability to see how government uses the public purse checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility.
I am including as part of my testimony, a report I have released today entitled, Transparency.gov 2.0 Using the Internet for budget transparency to increase accountability, efficiency and taxpayer confidence. This report highlights the national trend towards transparent budgets, outlines the clear benefits in the form of money saved and more accountable contracting and expenditures with private entities. The report compares best practices in the 18 states that have “upgraded” their budget transparency this way.
Like this growing number of states, Massachusetts should enlist new information technology tools to enhance transparency for public money. Eighteen states have established a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. Searchable Web portals to track any government contract or subsidy are becoming standard practice, at least in other states. Public officials across the country increasingly know that their spending and fiscal decisions are open to public scrutiny.
These technological tools are something we take for granted in the private sector. Internet search engines have revolutionized the accessibility of information. We can track deliveries online, check cellphone minutes, and compare real estate, even summon - at the click of a mouse - satellite and street-level views of any address. But when it comes to tracking particular government expenditures online, we are left in the dark.
By turning on the transparency light, we will minimize opportunities for “unethical” behavior and bolster public integrity.
In closing, I want to leave you with 3 reasons on why you should include budget transparency in your recommendations of needed ethics reform for the Commonwealth.
First: The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. As I said in my opening, budget transparency checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility.
Poor transparency, like we have now, corrodes democracy: When citizens are unable to access information about public funds, or when that information is difficult to scrutinize, accountability is severely hampered. As the Association of Government Accountants notes, “Without accurate fiscal information, delivered regularly, in an easily-understandable format, citizens lack the knowledge they need to interact with—and cast informed votes for—their leaders. In this regard, a lack of government accountability and transparency undermines democracy and gives rise to cynicism and mistrust.”
Second: With the Legislature's approval, this Task Force presents a unique opportunity for much-needed reform. The administration can implement the needed budget transparency upgrades as part of the three-year information technology overhaul it has already committed to and that the Legislature has already funded as part of July's bond bill.
Third: Massachusetts, consistently ranked as a top state for technology industries, and just named the top-ranked state in the New Economy Index by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, should be a leader in this field. Instead, the Commonwealth is barely beginning to take advantage of the benefits of online transparency for government expenditures.
The stakes are high. Local and state lawmakers have been accused of taking money in exchange for political favors, and Massachusetts faces recurring budget shortfalls and a host of challenges that require major public investment. Controversies related to the Big Dig and subsidies for large corporations and development projects have sullied the public's trust. While soundly defeated, recent calls for a repeal of the state's income tax are a warning sign that Massachusetts citizens want answers. An open transparent government, in particular the state budget, will allow our citizens to see real reform and re-build confidence on our government.
In cleaning up the ethics mess, you would do well to consider the phrase coined by Justice Louis Brandeis in support of transparency and disclosure: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Enc: Transparency.gov 2.0, MASSPIRG Education Fund, December 2008
Cleaning Up Massachusetts, Deirdre Cummings, Boston Globe Op-Ed, Nov. 30, 2008