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Hurricane Sandy, the devastating natural disaster that ravaged the Northeast in late October 2012, brought with it an increasing need for accountability and transparency in the federal government and its natural disaster recovery funding processes. Hurricane Sandy was not the first incident where billions of dollars in damage resulted from the path of a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in late August 2005, was the most recent, well-documented natural disaster to hit the United States, devastating hundreds of miles of coastline from Louisiana to Alabama, essentially eradicating many small towns from the map. The federal government, then under the direction of President George W. Bush, intervened in the response and recovery aspects of Hurricane Katrina, providing billions of dollars in relief for the Gulf Coast, particularly the city of New Orleans. Temporary housing, trailers, transportation, funds and other outpourings of assistance were provided under the guidance of the federal government, much of which went un- or under-utilized in the recovery phase following the storm. There was a public outcry for accountable federal spending splattered across the headlines among all of the major media outlets. Seven years later, Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath brought many of the same concerns and questions regarding accountability and transparency to the forefront and the media’s attention.
Many scholars of public administration and budgeting have maintained that the perceived disconnect between the public and those who are in positions to make decisions remains an enduring issue. Events like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina often provide disconnected constituencies the tools to react financially. Those making this argument point out that decision-making in public administration should be a process of carrying out democratic principles by authentically engaging the public. Theories and models for what constitutes successful citizen participation are available; however converting these theories into democratic norms is a challenge even for skilled practitioners of public administration. Irene Rubin rightly pointed out a disconnect between public budgeting theory and practice, while Carol Ebdon and Aimee L. Franklin identified the constant struggles associated with delivering democracy through citizen participation and budget decision making in their article entitled “Citizen Participation in Budgeting Theory” found in Volume 66 of Public Administration Review.
What, then, are scholars and practitioners to do when a perceived disconnect exists between democratic principles and the public? Of many possible solutions, accountability and transparency, when working in harmony, create a landscape of trust and participation in government. Public administration academicians have embraced the values of openness and transparency as keystones of accountable governments, while others have argued that transparency serves as a check on government officials’ actions.
Transparency, at its roots, is the revelation of processes which pave the way for decisions. Transparency is a public sector equipped to inform the public of the decisions and operations it makes, thus providing a basis for involvement in decision making by the public. Citizens, given the opportunity to learn and understand issues such as budgeting, planning, and dissemination of disaster relief funds, ultimately feel a sense of involvement and participation with their local, state, and federal government. In support of this concept, President Barack Obama issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies promoting the transparency of government and the participation of citizens to promote efficiency and effectiveness in government operations. This participation can, using the President’s own verbiage, “enhance[s] the Government’s effectiveness and improve[s] the quality of its decisions.” Steps like these are necessary to promote the interaction between policy-makers and their constituency.
Accountability for decisions contributes heavily to a public servant’s ability to retain his or her position. Increased transparency can only lead to better understandings of the actions taken by an individual or set of individuals, which may lead to a more receptive public in terms of the decisions being made in times of universal distress, such as natural disasters. With this in mind, and with a president seeking a landscape of citizen engagement, transparency, and accountability, how is it that 67 representatives voted against the distribution of $9.7 billion dollars to aid the victims of Hurricane Sandy? How can a government poised to include its citizens in its daily decisions deny funds to aid citizens in regaining their way of life? The answer is simple in its reasoning, convoluted in its execution, and potentially damaging in its media coverage
Whatever reasons (political, fiscal, etc.) were behind the decisions to fund or not fund the federal relief decree for Hurricane Sandy are peripheral to the real problem. These reasons do not represent the root of the problem. Instead, the public’s lack of adequate information regarding the funding structure for the relief efforts, in conjunction with the accountability of elected representatives to stand by their votes and to explain their reasoning, is where the disconnect between the public and the government exists.
Putting it all Together
Budgeting, as a planning tool, is a convoluted and complicated process requiring the interaction of multiple parts from numerous policy arenas. But in the end the budget represents a plan. Appropriating funding during natural disaster relief efforts complicates this process, as often times the disaster strikes ahead of or without the ability to plan accordingly. However, until there is a sound method of informing the public of the processes in planning for natural disasters and allocating funding to aid those in need, there will continue to be a disconnect.
Accountability and transparency, while not a cure-all solution to issues faced by public servants, do provide conduits for government agents to inform the public of their intentions and reasons without the need to issue a multitude of press releases and other media solutions. Accountability and transparency occur through a process of communication between agency and stakeholder, in this case the public, and necessitates the constant dialog between both parties to achieve a mutual understanding. Transparency in the funding requests for federal aid from Hurricane Sandy’s devastation would result in a dissemination of information regarding the various agencies receiving funds. Armed with this information, accountability could then shift from the representatives voting against providing aid to those involved in drafting the order for aid. Simply stated, transparency and accountability through these means would reduce the sensationalism attached to the media coverage of Hurricane Sandy, promoting more efficient and effective measures of restoring the northeastern United States back to its previous equilibrium.
Authors: Dallas Breen is a Senior Research Associate with the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and a Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University. Tyson Elbert is a Research Associate and Coordinator of the Education Policy Fellowship Program with the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development, Mississippi State University. Both contributors are PhD Candidates (ABD) in the Public Policy and Administration program at Mississippi State University.