Marching Toward Fiscal Transparency

Transparency advocates scored another victory in recent weeks with the passage of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2013 by the U.S. Congress. The White House has already announced that the President Obama will sign the bill into law.

This law builds on what has been occurring in the states for over a decade. The non-partisan American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) spearheaded legislation to create an ‘open checkbook’ in nearly all states. Forty-five states have the checkbook online that lists individual expenses and millions of individual transactions are available for public review. Connecticut, for example, is typical of what a state government provides:

There are sure to be shortcomings and disappointments with the forthcoming federal law, as there have been with the myriad of state checkbook initiatives. But the positive news is that elected officials of both parties enthusiastically supported the legislation. Enactment of the federal Act has demonstrated that both parties could work together on behalf of the people. Once committed to the notion of transparency, it is impossible to turn back.

Fundamentally, it is the people’s right to know where their money is being spent. They are the ones who generate the wealth that is then taxed and fills the coffers of government at the federal, state and local levels. Tragically, transparency should have never been sought; it should have been prevalent since the beginning of the country. But the past is the past. We can be thankful that transparency, for a variety of reasons, has pushed forward and is accelerating in all units of government.

Author Barry Casselman who writes on national politics, and was the first to predict Arkansas Governor William J. Clinton would become President of the United States, among a number of his ‘first’ observations, recently wrote about this march toward government transparency:

“I do not know exactly when the technology that will enable

virtually total transparency of American public life will take

over from the past, but it’s only a matter of time. And when it

does come, everyone will ask “How did we live without it?”

and “Why did we live without it?”

Government leaders now face the issue of whether they should serve as a catalyst for real transparency or work to slow or resist it. But it will come. Of course, real leaders will embrace it openly and accelerate its adoption.

For political figures, this will be easier than they might expect, as the public will strongly support them with their votes on Election Day. A George Washington University Battleground Poll released in late March of over 1,000 citizens nationwide revealed that 66% of voters would strongly support a candidate who would make transparent where tax dollars are spent and what results are being achieved for that investment.

Non-elected leaders inside government must also show courage and leadership. The politicians make the laws but it is the full-time government employees who turn the laws into reality. We know that government is historically late adopters of innovation. So instead of raising issues of ‘why we cannot move forward’ courageous leaders should challenge their team to make finances even more transparent in a thoughtful and intelligent way (including, adding all government programs, making it easier for citizens to understand, and ensuring it is in real-time).

This march could not come at a better time.

Recent surveys reveal that our citizens’ trust in government is on the decline. Partisan bickering is making government activity stagnant. And election campaigns are beyond name-calling and mud throwing.

The march toward transparency will provide Americans with tools to engage, monitor and assess the performance of their government. Both the political right and the political left (as well as America’s political center which is being stretched at both ends by rigid idealogues) can unify behind this effort. And the trust of citizens will grow which is not only great for America but for future generations of our citizens as well.

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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