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PA Goals for the 21st Century: #5 Increase Trust in Government Through Maximum Transparency

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

By Erik Devereux
June 23, 2021

trust (n.): “Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.”

This is the fifth of a series of monthly columns I will write for PA Times on the topic of setting public administration (PA) goals in the 21st century. You can find the prior columns by searching my last name on the PA Times website. I am grateful to PA Times for providing me this opportunity and I hope the readers find the goals I suggest worthy of discussion and action.

I probably do not need to devote much attention in this column to making the point that public trust in government has reached an unprecedented low point among Americans. There are many factors behind this decline in trust, but chief among them have been revelations that the government has consciously and purposefully lied to the public about major policy initiatives that had huge and often negative impacts on the country. Several years ago I wrote another column for PA Times about the role of the Pentagon Papers in this unfortunate process. Recently, columnists in the New York Times and elsewhere have seconded that opinion.

We are still unraveling the consequences of revelations about the sweeping surveillance of cell phone data by the federal government during the past three United States presidencies. We are still watching a truly titanic conflict unfold between various governments and cell phone manufacturers regarding data encryption that makes it clear governments wish to spy on citizens without proper protection of civil liberties. We have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic federal and state leaders seeking to hide statistics on the disease’s dreadful toll in the United States. Numerous reports over the past two years have documented efforts by local governments to protect law enforcement from scrutiny over the unnecessary deaths of African Americans. I could devote ten columns just to itemizing all the related details of this type of conscious lying by public officials.

Just as, “Sort of pregnant,” does not stand up to scrutiny, neither does, “Sometimes truthful.” To paraphrase venerable Master Yoda, when it comes to telling the truth either do or do not; There is no try. There is no way to be trusted if the truth is sidelined.

Public administration has long embraced important norms such as accountability and transparency. I want to focus here on transparency as the foundation for restoring trust in government. Increasingly, many governments in the United States at all levels have not only drifted away from transparency, but they also have made it a practice to punish public officials who champion the truth. There are terrible consequences happening as a result, including the unconscionable attack on state and county election officials for literally doing their intended jobs—accurately reporting the results of a vote.

Our democracy cannot withstand much more of this. Once a clear majority of the public has lost trust in government, that government’s days are numbered. I learned as a high school student that empires rot from within. The current climate surrounding trust in government smells exactly like that rot.

Starting now in 2021, everyone in public administration must embrace and champion transparency as the primary value for governance. Transparency must be put ahead of political calculations, ahead of perceived threats to national security and ahead of the well-being of any specific constituency. We have the tools available today for an unprecedented level of transparency. It is straightforward to make massive amounts of information available about what government does on a daily basis. What we need are the funds to support communicating with the public using those tools. This is why the current decline of mainstream newspapers is of such concern to experts on democratic institutions. Newspapers, far more than any other news medium, are the best for the type of in-depth reporting that can communicate vital details about government to the public.

Public administration needs to help build new communication systems that make it easy for the public to verify the truth about public policy and to resist all future efforts to punish those who promote transparency. I have in mind policies that will foster nonprofit alternatives to for-profit news media and also foster new norms regarding verifying the truthfulness of what governments say they are (or are not) doing. As much as I appreciate some of the existing sources of such verification (such as the Washington Post’s Pinocchio test), we need much more systematic efforts. Governments must invest heavily in trustworthy ways of restoring public trust.

If we draw this line and take this stand, we have a reasonable chance of restoring public trust in government before it is too late. I am hoping you will join me in drawing that line and taking that stand.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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