By Charlie Mitchell
Suppose President Obama was a room with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Suppose they had time to kill and no one to talk to except each other. Would they have common ground for chit-chat?
Yes. In a word, they agree wholeheartedly on “transparency.”
America’s leader and Mississippi’s chief executive have, throughout their careers, consistently favored keeping government operations as open to the public as possible. Both say openness and inclusion is foundational, a key asset the United States has and so many other nations don’t.
Said President Obama: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
Gov. Bryant, when serving as lieutenant governor, guided to unanimous passage live webcasting of state Senate sessions. He also guided comprehensive ethics reforms that require all elected officials to file their background reports online. And in campaigning for governor, Bryant told every Rotary Club, every political rally, every individual who shook his hand that he had little tolerance for those who failed to respect the right of citizens to know the whys and whats of government activity at all levels.
So what’s the problem?
Just as there’s a wide gulf between Obama and Bryant in their politics, there’s a wide gulf between their ideals and actions.
A Bloomberg study last summer reported that 57 major federal agencies were asked for executive travel reports. Obama directed that type of request to be answered in 20 days. Eight agencies complied, 49 did not, the report said.
Too, the Sunlight Foundation has documented that USAspending.gov, the administration’s pride and joy for full disclosure of government spending, had misreported more than $1.2 trillion in 2009 spending alone. So that begs the question: What good is “full access” if the access leads to bad, incorrect information?
For his part, Gov. Bryant last week signed “emergency” legislation to seal immediately the names of people who choose to buy open-carry gun permits. There is no way to overstate the fact that this change in a 1991 law has absolutely zero effect. No one is required to buy a permit and those who do don’t list weapons they own. The records had been open, akin to lists of charities, businesses, CPAs, certified teachers and others with state registrations, for 22 years — but to make some kind of statement in support of gun rights the provision was stampeded to passage. Open government be damned if there’s political hay to be made.
So why does transparency matter?
In their words if not their deeds, Obama and Bryant make clear it’s not a perk for the press.
Yes, there are cases, including The Sun-Herald’s recent efforts to make public the spending records of the Department of Marine Resources, where the ire of citizens might justifiably be aroused. There are times when reporters fulfill their watchdog duties and use government records to illustrate that the public’s money is not being spent for legal or ethical purposes.
The newspaper that serves the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been dogged — because it has had to be dogged — in obtaining information that everyone involved — including attorneys on the state payroll — agreed was in the public domain. At every turn, reporters were told “you can’t know that” purely because letting the public know how some of their money had been spent might prove embarrassing to those in charge of spending it.
But we need to be clear about this: The press has no right of access that doesn’t belong equally to each and every citizen of the state and nation.
The larger purpose of open government laws is to preserve what Abraham Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
President Obama also expressed this with eloquence: “Information maintained by the federal government is a national asset,” he said. “Public engagement enhances the government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.”
As we all know – and as we all see – saying is one thing; doing is another.
President Obama’s heart is clearly in the right place when it comes to open government and so is Gov. Bryant’s. It’s up to the public, though to constantly remind them that it’s in the best interest of government as well as the best interest of the public to be “transparent.”
A little less talk and a lot more action wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.