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Accelerating State Financial Transparency – 11 Steps To Take Right Now

We know that government is slow to adopt new technologies and change. But the technologies now exist to provide you as a constituent or as a state leader with the ability to see where state dollars are being spent and what results are being achieved virtually in real-time. It is now only a question of courage and will.

As you have read in my previous blog posts, most states have taken the first step toward true financial transparency, offering their constituents and elected leaders a chance to see individual transactions. These massive “data dumps” pay little attention to context, explanation, and do not make it easy to understand how tax dollars are being spent and what results are being achieved for the investment. This is only a first step that will eventually separate politicians from leaders, as the leaders will be those who spearhead true transparency.

I want to focus today on what each of us can do as individuals to build on the momentum of financial transparency so it will become real and sweep across the nation (and eventually move to Washington, DC to the Federal level where it is needed). Many of you are either personally interested in the subject or see it as a way to supersede partisan rhetoric and lack of action that occurs at many levels of government. Still others look around and can’t believe the apparent lack of accountability and lack of clear focus on program objectives. Others understand that transparency leads to overall improved performance and that ‘sunlight’ provides another incentive for those at all levels of government to be better stewards of tax dollars.

Well, what are we going to do about it? It is our country. And we (the citizens) have a right to know where our money is being spent, and what value we receive.

Below are eleven steps that each of us can take to exponentially increase the momentum of financial transparency. You can take one step or all eleven. But each will impact our nation’s move toward true transparency.

None of this is particularly difficult, but it takes focus and discipline. Having been involved in impacting decisions made by elected officials for my entire life, I know first hand that these eleven steps can make it happen, and happen sooner than we all will realize. Here they are in no particular order:

  • Ask your elected leaders when they will provide comprehensive transparency?

Most citizens put up with politicians, but few ask pointed and direct questions. Guess what leaves an impact on elected officials: pointed and direct questions. In fact, a well-asked question and some logical thinking behind it is almost always seriously considered and given weight by the elected official. So the next time you see your Governor, Lt. Governor, State Treasurer, State Auditor or member of the legislature, ask them this:

“What specific steps are you taking to bring real-time state budget transparency to me and others in the state?”

Be polite. But don’t just accept the platitudes of transparency proffered to government. If their answer is “no answer” ask again, and ask them to be specific. If one elected official hears the same question from ten people, they will take it seriously and push for action.

  • Post articles and content pertaining to state financial transparency on your social media networks

Create a “Google alert” for (insert your state) financial transparency (see www.google.com/alerts to learn more). This excellent service allows you to tap into the news and content that Google discovers that is relevant to your state.

In the coming weeks, you will probably hear about independent ranking, scoring, and grading of your state’s transparency efforts. If your state is ranked above average, laud the elected leaders and urge them to do more. Urge your friends on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social media networks to spread the word. Savvy elected officials and their staff keep their ‘ears and eyes’ open to social media and it will have a significant impact on them and how they prioritize financial transparency.

  • Submit letters to the editor to on-line media raising the issue of state financial transparency

It is the public’s right to know how their money is being spent. Sending a short note to the editor of on-line publications (and print media) suggesting that financial transparency should be a state priority draws reporter attention to the issue and will have positive repercussions throughout the media. After all, this is non-partisan issue that brings all types of people together. Simply stating that the public has the right to know where their money is being spent, and what results are being achieved with the investment, is as American as the flag, apple pie and George Washington.

  • Raise your hand at work inside of government and ask – Are we going to be transparent about the costs and benefits of this program?

We have many people working inside of government who could help with our transparency movement. In the everyday workings of government, a single hand or comment in a meeting, i.e., “we should be transparent about the costs and benefits of this program or initiative by making them available to our citizens” will exponentially increase the level of transparency. A few courageous people who deeply care about program results and the positive impact they have on fellow citizens can do a great service.

  • Call in your favorite talk radio show and ask a question, using the words “transparency” and “accountability”

Whether it is a local radio show or a nationally syndicated program (i.e., Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh), pick your favorite station and call in to raise the issue of financial transparency. My experience in the broadcast business tells me the producers of these shows would value your input on financial transparency and why you believe it is important. Several callers just raising the issue with the host’s ‘call screener’ (the person who decides who gets airtime) will thrust this topic onto the state and national spotlight.

  • Support candidates for elected office who support complete state financial transparency

No politics here. No speeches. Just vote for the person who says “I support complete financial transparency…. it’s the people’s money. They have a right to know,” or something like that. A recent poll result from the George Washington University Battleground survey demonstrated that people overwhelming support a candidate who supports financial transparency. Winning candidates understand how to get and keep voters on their side. Your job is to influence their agenda by making your voice heard.

  • Talk with one person daily about the need for financial transparency; ask them to do one thing to keep the momentum moving forward.

Make a note in your calendar to spread the need for state financial transparency to one person per day. Our citizens universally desire it. We just need to pump up the volume by methodically spreading the message. I have been honored to post to GovLoop as a guest blogger. Everywhere I go, everyday, I mention the importance of letting people know where their tax dollars are being spent and what results are being achieved by the investment. Transparency will make better stewards of all of our elected officials.

  • Publicly thank state leaders who embrace financial transparency through email, or postings to your social media.

Elected leaders desire to be praised. Those who do the ‘right thing’ should be rewarded with a public thank you. This creates an incentive for the next, and the next, and the next government official to do the ‘right thing’ as well. My years inside and outside of government have reinforced something to me; simple recognition of great works goes a long way by encouraging those who work in state government, to do exceptional work on behalf of the citizens.

  • Use any opportunity with an elected official to say, “What are you specifically doing to provide complete financial transparency, so our citizens know where tax dollars are being spent, and what results are being achieved by the investment?”

My favorite story about making an impact deals with a small business owner who stopped a legislator in a local parade, and asked if the legislator was supporting an extremely important piece of pro-small business legislation. I later spoke with the legislator who said, “David, you have won this if people are stopping me at parades and asking me if I am on your side.” Instead of shying away from an elected official at the grocery store, parade, rally or hair saloon, ask him or her about financial transparency. Don’t let an opportunity to be heard go to waste.

  • Ask the leadership of organizations you belong to or affiliate with what they are doing to promote state financial transparency

Perhaps you are a dues paying member of the local Chamber of Commerce, or the Rotary Club, or a non-profit organization doing good things in your state and community. Ask the leadership of those organizations what they are doing to encourage state financial transparency. Associations, clubs and membership organizations want to make their members happy; you have leverage to encourage their involvement. After all, we know that financial transparency will lead to outstanding stewardship of resources, and allow citizens to be fully aware of what government is doing with their tax dollars, and what results are being achieved. With transparency so popular among the people, it might be an opportunity for your local organization to grow, and have a dramatic impact on the state’s future – for the better!

  • Pass this blog on to others that you think might be interested in growing the transparency movement, and put the future back into the hands of our citizens.

Let me thank everyone who continues to tweet, re-tweet, forward and post the blogs I have written to date. Your encouragement and support is very much appreciated. With the right technology, good elected leadership, people engaged in state and local government, and everyday citizens, we can build on the strength and compassion of America. Transparency is the future. And that is a darn good thing for a nation that continues to enable people to live their dreams.

David Rehr is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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