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 Is Lack of Openness and Transparency in Government a Serious Problem?   

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
June 11, 2018

Recent Pew research indicates that 96 percent of those polled in the U.S. feel that openness and transparency in government are very important or somewhat important. But only 30 percent believe government does “very well” or “somewhat well” in providing openness and transparency.

I would argue that openness and transparency in government has increased by orders of magnitude since I entered government service back in the late 60’s. If the public wants to know a lot more than is available from television or newspapers, they have access to truly enormous amounts of information online.

Recently, I was interested in a county zoning matter that affected my immediate community. I was surprised to learn my county’s Planning Commission has a web page that provides a good deal of information for citizens. The agendas for the weekly Commission meetings are provided in advance online. The hearings are televised. You can view videos of previous hearings. You are invited to submit electronic or paper documents regarding a particular zoning issue. You can speak at the hearing for up to three minutes if you provide advance notice. Or you can just show up and speak for up to two minutes as I did. I was actually surprised at all this openness.

Here are some online information sources that indicate openness of the federal government.

  1. gov. You can browse the Congressional Record by date.You can track bills introduced in the House and Senate during the current Congress.

    (As of this writing, 5,995 house bills and 2,984 Senate bills had been introduced.)

    You can review Committee and subcommittee activities as they oversee executive branch operations and develop new legislation. You can watch Congressional hearings live and you can watch videos of previous hearings.

    You can track the public laws that have been enacted during the current Congress. (As of this writing, there were 179 public laws.)

    You can review the U.S. Code, which is a compilation of public laws organized by topic.

  2. Federal Register. The Federal Register is published daily and has the rules, proposed rules, and notices for each agency.For example, the June 4, 2018, issue has 304 pages with 100 entries from 41 agencies.
  3. The administration’s viewpoint. At whitehouse.gov, you can view the administration’s budget proposals and its on views on policy issues of the day such as national security, immigration and the Opioid crisis.
  4. To better understand how the federal government spends nearly four trillion a year, visit usaspending.gov.
  5. Electronic Regulations (e-CFR). The e-CFR contains the online version of federal regulations. There are an estimated 185,000 pages.
  6. The United States Government Manual. This manual provides high-level information regarding all federal agency activities and programs.
    1. The Government Accountability Office (GA0) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) websites. Citizens can read the same reports that Members of Congress receive.
    2. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. The public can require agencies to produce certain information under FOIA. There are thousands of such requests each year. The Social Security Administration alone processed 21,619 FOIA requests in 2017 (source: FOIA.gov). Agencies receive many non-FOIA information requests as well – especially from Congressional oversight committees.
    3. Agency websites and customer portals. Federal agency websites such as commerce.gov provide a wealth of information about agency programs, budgets, data, etc. Inspector General (IG) reports are available if an agency has an IG. Many agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, permit citizens to file claims and otherwise interact with the agency online. The Social Security Administration’s website includes calculators citizens can use to make benefit estimates.
    4. Feedback mechanisms. From my observation, agencies receive much more frequent and intense citizen feedback and interest group feedback than in the past because of the existence of electronic tools such as email, Facebook, Twitter, and customer service centers. Members of Congress often bring up very specific citizen or interest group concerns at oversight hearings because they frequently receive such detailed information from citizens and interest groups.

Despite the massive degree of available documentation, there is still a lot that is hidden from the public. Details of computer systems, classified and sensitive information, and details of many day-to-day executive and legislative branch activities are not available to the public. Also, the information that is available may not always be up-to-date or accurate. Some documents may reflect “spin.”

Some governmental processes may be more open than others. The negotiations that led to the recent tax reform were largely conducted behind closed doors. But the various proposals leaked out. The final bill signed into law was not a big surprise to anyone following the issue.

With so much government documentation available to the public and with all the existing press coverage, it’s hard for me to understand why such high percentages of people think the government is not very open or transparent. The national press covers the major issues of the day fairly well but a large number of secondary issues go unreported. Maybe the public is just feeling overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of their government.

Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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