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May-27-2010 20:03printcomments

The Trials and Tribulations of Transparency

I am not saying that if you are not cynical you’re naïve...

Government transparency

(EUGENE, Ore.) - I have been covering the Oregon State Government’s transparency efforts here at Salem-News for several months.

As part of that coverage, I built the Oregon Transparency Project website, which makes State expenditure data easily accessible to the public.

I attended a meeting of the Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission today where I had the opportunity to witness their efforts first hand, hear from representatives of the Department of Administrative Services on their progress, and meet with some of the leaders in the State’s transparency efforts.

Fred King, of the Committee on Performance Excellence, stated the goal and definition of transparency very clearly, saying that transparency is not just dumping a lot of data on a public website, but making that information understandable to the intended audience.

One of the key goals of the State’s transparency efforts is to better communicate to the taxpayer how their money is being spent. That goal was clearly articulated by Mr. King and seemed to be generally shared and understood by all of the Commission members.

Where the Commission and the State seem to be at somewhat of an impasse is the practical means of achieving that goal.

The Legislature is not willing to allocate any new funds for improving the State’s transparency website, nor are they willing to allow agencies to reallocate existing funds for the task. At least that appears to be the consensus opinion amongst the individuals involved.

This situation seems to be somewhat at odds with the sentiment expressed in HB 2500, the bill mandating the creation of a transparency website, that the lack of transparency at the time was a “state of emergency,” which required immediate action.

I tend to agree with “state of emergency” designation for the reason that public confidence in the integrity and competence of government, both State and Federal, is at an all time low. Public confidence in the efficiency of government has been non-existent for some time.

Transparency, in the sense of making data on expenditures public in a way that is easily accessible, is a relatively low cost way of restoring some confidence in the integrity and competence of the State Government.

Criticizing “Government” makes up an enormous amount of the nonsensical political discourse broadcast in the media and by political campaigns. Some of this criticism is valid, although in most cases, it is little more than the pot calling the kettle black.

The only real way to counter the nonstop negative attacks in the political arena is to make as much real information as broadly available, and to make sure that what is made available can be understood by the public, so that they can discern for themselves between political posturing and legitimate policy proposals for government reform.

I heard a rumor that it was proposed that the cost of providing a full fledged transparency website would be in the high seven figure range. This is a figure that is preposterously inflated, even by government standards.

Improved communications is certainly a primary goal of transparency efforts, but government reform is clearly another goal. Improving efficiency, and reducing waste and corruption are important goals as well.

What must be said here is that “improving efficiency” and “reducing waste” are both euphemisms for cutting somebody’s salary. Nobody likes to say this, but when you boil it down, if you are going to improve efficiency it means that someone is going to do more for the same amount of pay, or do the same job for less.

I know this, and anybody who has risen in the ranks of any bureaucracy damn well knows it too.

For this reason, I would assert that it can be safely assumed that there is and will be a certain level of bureaucratic resistance to real transparency efforts by agency managers, who can certainly smell the whiff of budget cuts to come if said transparency efforts achieve their desired effect.

What is necessary here is to make sure that managers in every agency understand that they will have to cut budgets and accept reduced salaries across the board and down the line.

Nobody can look at the State’s finances, the Federal Government’s finances, and the economy in general without reaching the conclusion that we are facing a decade or more of declining real wages and declining government revenues in real terms.

The State has managed to keep their budget afloat because the Federal Government backstopped them, but the Federal Governments backstop is based on a combination of increased debt and inflationary monetization, which eventually has to be paid for.

On top of this, the Federal Government’s finances will continue to deteriorate significantly over the next two decades as it has to pay out on Social Security and Medicare entitlements, not to mention Veterans’ benefits.

Not only will there be no more Federal bailouts, but ultimately the net flow of funds between the State and the Federal Government will significantly shift, with the State and its Citizens either being forced to pay more in taxes for less in return.

Consequently, the fiscal picture for the State over the next 10-20 years is grim, and budget reductions are inevitable.

This is a reality that there seems to be a certain level of denial about, at least in the public statements of State Government officials.

I recall attending a public forum on the State’s budget prior to the passage of Measures 66 & 67, which for the record, I vehemently opposed.

At this forum, all but two of the people who spoke were speaking on behalf of some Government agency or program. Nearly all of them asked the assembled legislators to fully fund their programs and predicted dire consequences in terms of cuts of public services if they did not

Personally, I consider this to be unacceptable.

If the State as a whole needs to cut its budget by 10%, or whatever the number is, it is not acceptable for any person being paid to manage a government agency to say that they need full funding, or they will have to cut services. That is not management. photo of Oregon's state capitol by Tim King

Competent management is saying: here is where I will cut 10% from my budget without any significant impact on public service outcomes. That is what should be expected and demanded from the highly paid management staff in our State’s public agencies.

Improving transparency is one of the ways that every Government agency can make the cuts that need to be made, effectively communicate to the public about those budget cuts, and demonstrate to the public that they have been able to cut their budgets while maintaining essential services through increased efficiency.

Consequently, I believe that improved transparency efforts would be beneficial to every agency, and I would be disappointed in any agency managers that are obstructing transparency efforts.

To use an analogy: I would say that the ship of State is at this point leaking. What would be wise by those who float upon that ship would be to join together and bail, not fight with each other over the inadequate number of lifeboats.

Despite what may be the wisest choice for those involved, I have seen some signs of what I consider to be obstructionist activity in the transparency effort.

I heard a rumor that it was proposed that the cost of providing a full fledged transparency website would be in the high seven figure range. This is a figure that is preposterously inflated, even by government standards.

I was discussing this with a friend, and explained to him that in my opinion this was essentially their way of saying that they were not going to comply with the transparency mandates, since that kind of budget is unlikely to rapidly materialize.

On a side note, I have some experience with how the State’s website development process works.

I once had the opportunity to do a contract for a third party on a Government affiliated project. The situation was that a private company with a State contract needed a site developed. They contracted this to a company, which contracted it to another individual, who contracted it to me.

I was well paid for the job, and I don’t even mark up for government work. My best guess, based on the number of intervening subcontractors, would be that the taxpayer ended up paying about ten times the market value of the work performed.

I am not saying that if you are not cynical you’re naïve.

What I am simply alluding to is that there are opportunities for real efficiency enhancements. I would think that it would be in the best interests of everyone who is collecting a government salary to seize those opportunities while they exist.

The taxpayers of this State are taking a cut in their take home pay in the form of higher taxes. Non-management Government employees have taken cuts in their effective salaries.

There is no reason why the highest paid Government employees should not accept a reasonable reduction in their salaries, and there is no reason why a higher level of efficiency should not be demanded from private for-profit companies that accept Government contracts.

Increasing transparency is an important part of insuring that the burden of the State’s deteriorating finances is shared equitably amongst all parties, including taxpayers, management and non-management State employees, and private corporations that do business with the State.

Given that this is in the best interests of everyone involved, I find it hard to believe that anyone in Government would willfully obstruct these transparency efforts, and I would prefer to assume that that is not the case.

Consequently, I am hoping that I will see the State embrace the implementation of their transparency mandate with a “can do” attitude that emphasizes immediate results with available resources, while keeping in mind more extensive and expensive options for the future.

=================================== Business/Economy Reporter Ersun Warncke is a native Oregonian. He has a degree in Economics from Portland State University and studied Law at University of Oregon. At a young age, his career spans a wide variety of fields, from fast food, to union labor, to computer programming. He has published works concerning economics, business, government, and media on blogs for several years. He currently works as an independent software designer specializing in web based applications, open source software, and peer-to-peer (P2P) applications.

Ersun describes his writing as being "in the language of the boardroom from the perspective of the shop floor." He adds that "he has no education in journalism other than reading Hunter S. Thompson." But along with life comes the real experience that indeed creates quality writers. Right now, every detail that can help the general public get ahead in life financially, is of paramount importance.

You can write to Ersun at:

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Douglas Benson May 30, 2010 10:36 am (Pacific time)

Dont get me wrong Ersun its not a lost cause .We the people are thier bosses in the end . A few months ago I allmost killed a mortorcycle cop that was going the wrong way on a blind turn . I caught up with him asked for his card and called his supervisor. I must give MCSO props they treated my complaint seriously .As far as I am concerned they work for me and if they do something stupid that endangers me or themselves it is my responsibility to call them on it. So it should go for all our services ,if they arent doing what is needed ,doing it wrong ,spending too much or whatever we have the authority to change things up .The other side of this is a deal is a deal.We agreed to things like 8% ect.and we should stand behind those promises . Peace

Henry Clay Ruark May 30, 2010 9:28 am (Pacific time)

Ersun et al: Thank you for pragmatic, very practical summary of situation precisely defining WHY we pay taxes and WHAT to do now that new tech has made both transparency and previous knowledge as taxes imposed a demanded necessity. That's one of unavoidable, inevitable changes in modern life as 21st Century arrives, and we ignore it at our real risk for what democracy can become NOW, vs what has been possible before. "Truth can make you free", but first you must find it, and then you must be able to appreciate it, as transparency makes possible NOW.

Ersun Warncke May 29, 2010 1:26 pm (Pacific time)

Douglas, you aren't wrong. However, I would point out that three months ago it was impossible for the average citizen to get access to a line-by-line accounting of expenditures. That is just a start. We still need transparency on contracting, which is an area where transparency is definitely needed. Getting the data publicly available is only a first step, which needs to be followed up with analysis of that data, and the application of political pressure based on it. Keep in mind that the goal is not perfection. I have never seen any organization, business or government, or for that matter any person who is not prone to some level of corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence. That is the nature of life. The only goal here is to try and improve. You pay taxes either way, so you may as well get more for your money. That is just common sense. Adopting the attitude that whatever you pay in taxes is wasted, and so there is no reason to demand something in return for them is exactly the kind of thinking that corrupt individuals rely on. Demanding results and performance in exchange for your money is the only way you will ever get it. If you treat your tax payments as a charitable donation, then the people who take them will treat them the same way. I would advise people to treat their taxes as a fee paid for a service, and demand that the service gets delivered.

Dougla Benson May 29, 2010 8:18 am (Pacific time)

Anon. the shortfall isnt as far as I know all the agencies have monies that must be put away to cover this .

Anonymous May 28, 2010 3:09 pm (Pacific time)

Douglas. PERS is funded differently.

Douglas Benson May 28, 2010 7:16 am (Pacific time)

Dream on Ersun .I will predict that no upper or middle management workers will take cuts to thier salary ,but the actual workers will get cut to part time with the same workload ect.There will never be any transparent accouting , this trick is older than the hills .If they dont want to do what the law requires they dont spend money to do it or refuse .I could give examples all day of this practice one being a voter initiative to fully fund public schools . No law enforcement will get cuts ,the DOC wont take any cuts .Oh you can say we cut thier budget but they will be back real soon saying they are broke and need emergency funds I will bet any ammount of money on that one. The worst part is PERS we owe something like 17 billion our total two year budget is what about 7-9 billion. Anyhow good luck with transparancy .Peace

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