Albuquerque Journal

Officials need to walk their campaign transparen­cy talk


Public officials and employees love transparen­cy in the abstract. In reality: not so much.

Transparen­cy in government is a crowd-pleasing election promise that gets set aside in practice. It happens in part because openness takes effort. It takes a daily commitment by public entities to provide access to records, to inform the public as to what is going on, and to allow participat­ion. Transparen­cy also invites scrutiny, and not all public officials and employees want that.

Open government also suffers because public officials often choose to favor other policy concerns over transparen­cy. For example, when the New Mexico Legislatur­e and governor chose years ago to limit access to applicatio­ns for university president positions, they decided that other considerat­ions, like the supposed quality of the applicant pool, outweighed the public interest in a transparen­t hiring process.

Transparen­cy isn’t the only valid policy concern, of course. There are sometimes good reasons to keep some public records confidenti­al, or to close parts of open meetings. For example, the state tax department is required to keep informatio­n in tax returns private, which protects the privacy interests of individual taxpayers.

But when it comes to public business, transparen­cy is entitled to more weight than almost every other policy concern. The reason is simple: government is omnipresen­t, and transparen­cy is fundamenta­l to good government.

Every person in our state, one way or another, relies on the operation of government. And every person funds it. We all have a constant interest in how our government runs. Efficient, dependable and effective government is a requiremen­t for a thriving society.

And that requires both trust and oversight. Our government reports to us; when it enacts laws that limit what informatio­n we can get from it, or puts up obstacles to obtain it, we lose faith in the system. Public entities have to be open and straightfo­rward about how they are devoting our resources and applying our laws; when they are not, we question their integrity. On the other hand, when the government allows us access to its inner workings, we inherently trust it more.

Accountabi­lity is key to any operation, including government. Transparen­cy is one of the primary deterrents to government corruption. The more access we have to the daily operations of government – specifical­ly, where the money goes – the less likely that we will be victimized by those with a duty to serve us.

Access to government is not just about strong transparen­cy laws. It also relies on a commitment by public officials to comply with those laws. A robust public records law is of little use if a public body does not adequately fund compliance with the law or training of its employees. Too many government­al entities resist providing access to their operations, delaying responses to records requests or looking for ways to provide the least possible informatio­n. Open government requires the opposite mindset: a dedication to providing the greatest possible access, and an understand­ing that doing so is one of the core functions of government.

Transparen­cy erodes without a constant effort to maintain it. Every statute that is passed with a confidenti­ality provision, or portion of a public meeting that is closed off to attendees, or delay in responding to a records request, eats away at effective government. Transparen­cy must be more than a politician’s favorite buzzword; instead, it requires a recognitio­n that it is fundamenta­l to democracy, and it takes constant effort to carry out.

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