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Public policy analysis

We need understandable government transparency

By: Randi Swisley, president, League of Women Voters of Placer County
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As this is the maiden voyage for Public Policy Analysis, it seems only fitting to begin by outlining government transparency and accountability.
After all, if the details of how government gets things done were obvious to normal citizens like us, and if knowing how our tax dollars are actually spent weren’t such a mystery at times, there wouldn’t be a need for a public policy analysis column, would there?
A government that is less complex and more transparent, one that is adequate, flexible, fair, reliable and sustainable, should also be understandable to the public. When we do not understand how our tax dollars are spent, there is no way to hold government accountable for spending the way we intended when we adopted our legislation and laws.
There are a number of steps that government could take, which would solve the problems we encounter while trying to understand what our government is doing.
The first step is simply making information available. Posting budgets online is a good place to start because it is essential for any further progress toward fiscal accountability. Merely making information available however — so easy to do in this digital age — falls short of the real challenge of making the information understandable.
A downside of our digital age is the overwhelming volume of available information from which to choose. Unless presented in a way that we have time to absorb it, it is useless. The challenge is not just the complexity of the information itself, but also the infrastructure that is used to present the information.
Consistent information across government departments could have an enormous impact on infrastructure transparency, helping us to more accurately interpret information as we move from department to department in our quest.
Imagine if you picked up a budget report at your local police department and the budget report at the county records office was in the same format. Imagine if the way you found information online was obvious and you could find the same type of information by clicking links structured the same way, regardless of which department it was and whether that department was in the county or the city. It would make the quest for this information much less discouraging.
Significant active engagement and oversight from the public is essential in a transparent infrastructure. Local control requires local community engagement that is informed, active and inclusive — even in the decision-making process.
Budget workshops, which are designed to inform and engage members of the community, are essential to open government. The more prominently publicized and welcoming the invitations to such hearings, the more likely the public will attend. Without the public’s input, the hearings are useless.
Community input and review of Local Control and Accountability plans, which confirm policies are in alignment with stated goals and priorities, is another example of a best practice of open government. Accountability in any system of governance provides both clear lines of authority and clearly defined methods of accountability.
Interested community members who have the opportunity to be partners with accountable government representatives in the development of plans, instead of being brought in after the fact (sometimes giving the appearance of participation) is an even better practice.
We are lucky to live in a community of concerned citizens. Governments able to engage those citizens who evaluate alternatives fairly, with unbiased intentions, will prove to possess a core competency necessary to accomplish true transparency.
Legislative policy can be complex, but finding reliable, unbiased information should not be more work than it is to understand the information once you have found it. As government moves toward being more understandable itself, it can bridge the gap by referring interested members of the public to community groups that make it easier to learn and become more involved.
Randi Swisley is president of the League of Women Voters of Placer County.