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What The Government Needs To Do To Improve Transparency

by Joshua Alvarez, published

Patricia Hofmeester / Patricia Hofmeester /

The government is shut down and the ill effects of gerrymandering seem to be at least part of the reason why our political system is at such a dramatic impasse. The word gerrymandering, meaning the practice of redrawing the states’ district lines to benefit a particular political party, is derived from the name of one of America’s earliest congressmen, Elbridge Gerry.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gerry’s legacy, his name has become synonymous with legalized corruption, but he did have at least one saving grace: he was a fierce champion of what is today termed “government transparency.” In 1792, he successfully defended the appropriation of federal subsidies for newspaper postal distribution, declaring:

“However firmly liberty may be established in any country, it cannot long subsist if the channels of information be stopped.”

Since the founding of the United States, government openness has continuously received support from citizens and from the platforms of political parties.

For example, the U.S. Senate originally held their sessions behind closed doors and expressly prohibited public access. It was a private, secretive stronghold of aristocratic Federalists until Thomas Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans successfully maneuvered to require the Senate to open its doors to the public.

In essence, government transparency is about openness and accountability. A transparent government makes information about its workings and decisions easily available to the public it serves. In turn, a public informed about their government’s actions allows for more intelligent participation in policy discussions and elections.

Participatory politics cannot survive without government transparency.

Today, advocates for government transparency face new and arguably more difficult challenges. Transparency advocates often encounter resistance from the government, especially in the security and intelligence communities.

The post-9/11 expansion of security and intelligence services buried a great deal of government policy and decisions beneath a mountain of security clearances and unattainable classified documents.

“Intelligence and national security focused agencies tend to be most resistant to transparency ideals, displaying a ‘just trust us’ attitude,” said Ginger McCall, the federal policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 2006 with the mission of using technology and the Internet to catalyze government transparency. “They frequently argue that they cannot tell us what they are doing because it would compromise national security. In practice, these claims often do not hold up.”

Additionally, while money and politics have always been inseparable, American politics now lives in the age of Super PACs — huge, opaque political action committees with unlimited amounts of money from anonymous donors that directly influence the outcome of elections.

The Sunlight Foundation’s stance is unequivocal:

"The Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision, opened the door to an unfettered, unregulated influx of money into elections from corporations and labor unions. A first step in addressing the multitude of problems the decision created is disclosure. It is incumbent upon Congress to immediately create a robust, rapid transparency regime that takes full advantage of technology. This requires real-time, online transparency on every level of influence, from independent expenditures to lobbying to bundled campaign contributions.”

At the same time, journalists and transparency advocates have many more tools at their disposal thanks to technology. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation create programs that track and monitor Super PAC contributions, foreign lobbying efforts, individuals and organizations that are influencing elections and policy decisions, and even deleted tweets from politicians’ accounts.

“Technology has greatly improved public access,” said Ms. McCall. “Making documents available online improves public access and allows the government to more efficiently get information to the people. Machine readable formats and the technologies that can read those documents allow for more efficient review and analysis of many aspects of government functioning.”

However, she said, the government is demonstrating an unwillingness to make an upfront investment in new technologies and systems that would increase transparency.

Furthermore, politicians are under more pressure than ever to have direct channels of communication to the American public. Almost every senator and congressman has a Twitter account. Government agencies have joined the party with social media accounts of their own.

While politicians’ social media outlets may lead to more accountability, they have also eroded the wall separating public from private life with spectacular consequences for some political careers, as was the case for Anthony Weiner. Still, in McCall’s words, “Insomuch as a representative is operating in his professional capacity and participating in policy decisions, transparency is warranted.”

The arc of history seems to favor transparency advocates. The passage of the Freedom of Information Act was one of the most significant victories for government transparency in the past fifty years.  Still, there is a real need for movement on the government’s end, said McCall.

“The government should increase proactive disclosure of documents and make more documents available in machine readable format," she added. "They can also address several very pressing issues regarding lobbying, money in politics, and government spending by making more information available by default. There are also improvements that could be made to the Freedom of Information Act which would increase ease of public access.”

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