My view: Citizens must help work toward government transparency

Published: Sunday, July 27 2008 12:25 a.m. MDT

The term "transparent government" seems to be an oxymoron these days. For example, in a nationwide survey commissioned earlier this year by the Association of Government Accountants, only 5 percent of those surveyed said that their state government met their expectations for openness and honesty in spending practices. In some instances, such as in the case of bonuses given to public employees in Sandy, government officials will even go to court before they give information out to the public.

It should come as little surprise, then, that few citizens know about or have attended the meetings of the Utah Transparency Advisory Board — charged with making state government more transparent through a financial-information Web site administered by the state's Division of Finance. Ironically, due to scheduling difficulties, the first two meeting times of this board have been rather nontransparent. Its third meeting will be on Monday, July 28, at the Capitol.

At the most recent meeting, one board member lamented that there had been little public input as to what information should be included on the Web site. Because he doesn't seem to know what the public wants, let's help this struggling overseer: We want to know how our government is spending our tax dollars.

The board member's confusion, however, highlights why Utahns must be involved in the governing process if they expect government transparency to improve. When citizens sit idly by, government officials alone are left to determine what it means to be transparent.

Without citizen participation, in a best-case scenario public officials will recognize that creating transparent government is about protecting fundamental freedoms, maintaining representative government and increasing public accountability. Unfortunately, this is not a common occurrence.

In a worst-case scenario, government officials will take advantage of a lack of public involvement in order to withhold from the people critical information concerning Utah's governance. By doing so, they subvert both the freedoms of Utah citizens and representative government for their own personal aims.

Reality usually ends up somewhere between the two extremes. One thing is certain, however: If the citizens remain on the sidelines in the process of creating transparent government, the worst-case scenario looms. There will always be those in government willing to sacrifice others' freedom to maintain the power that comes from hiding knowledge.

Real transparency and open governance is about keeping power in the hands of citizens. The question that falls to citizens, then, is do we really want open, transparent government? If we do, we can contact the members of the Utah Transparency Advisory Board and let them know what information should be included on Utah's public-finance Web site. If we don't, we can leave the decision wholly up to the board and stake our liberties on the hope that they might get it right.

As we contemplate this question and what to do about it, we should keep in mind Thomas Paine's admonition concerning freedom. He wrote, "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."


Derek Monson is a policy analyst at the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank based in Salt Lake City.

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