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The Issue of Transparency

By John Guy on March 18, 2015 in Civic Blog
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“Transparency” or lack thereof, is a lever of opponents.

“Public scrutiny” is a plausible impossibility, a tool of critics, an impossible dream that is practical only through extraordinary labor of interested citizens.  Scrutiny is time consuming because contract language is detailed, complicated and long.  Even journalists find contracts daunting and difficult to explain in limited space.

From the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, to parking meters and judicial centers in Indianapolis, critics allegetransparency-2 cynical motives and underhanded maneuvers to gain personal income (as if the profit motive is not moral) by declaring that this or that was accomplished in secret.  The allegation is incorrect.  Most change is accomplished in public.

Bitter opponents of The Affordable Care Act state that no one read the act that it was “slipped through,” secretly, in private.  Not true!  Most concepts in the AFC trace their histories back decades, some to 1938, when Governor Earl Warren of California first proposed state-sponsored health care.  Passage of Medicare in 1965 started the modern trend.  Elements of health reform proposed by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are present in the AFC, as are provisions modeled on laws in Massachusetts.  All elements were mentioned in debate.  Reports from Congressional committees and draft copies of the final bill were widely available to anyone willing to make the effort (the extraordinary effort) to read them.  Every word was read by someone, certainly by persons having interest such as representatives of hospital associations, insurance companies and medical providers.  To argue that the act was passed in secret is absurd.  The argument is a straw man for fundamental opposition.

In Indianapolis, critics allege secrecy arbitrarily and inconsistently.  A tax to hire police officers sailed through local government without protest or debate.  No study was provided, no justification, no hypothesis that more officers will reduce crime.  Without opposition, public scrutiny did not exist.

On the other hand, two public projects have attracted criticism for having been negotiated in private.  The first is new parking meters that are likely to create new revenues while allowing users to pay by credit card.  Although the deal imposes no taxes, opponents were incensed.  They charged that handing the contract to a private for-profit entity will not generate as much revenue as available if managed by city administrators and financed by a public sale of bonds.  Opponents alleged secrecy and self-dealing in creation of the contract.

A second and much larger local public project is the proposed new judicial center.  Despite general acceptance of need for the facility, critics have stated that the cost is likely to be too high because it will be financed by private developers through a sale-leaseback arrangement.  (A project built and owned directly by government requires a public referendum which is costly to promote.)  Critics also imply unethical self dealing for profit because the request for proposals was not made public and negotiations were private.

But, what if transparency and public scrutiny are not demonstrably important?   Getting the job done is important. Finishing The Roman Coliseum, The Big Dig in Boston, The Golden Gate, Lucas Oil Stadium, The Chunnel—those are significant.  Introducing proposals in public is important. The details are not.  Why?

First, unlike in nations such as China, projects in The United States are public.  Proposals are announced.  Minutes and voting records may be viewed.  Final contracts may be read.  Details might be obscure to outsiders, but are well known to insiders.  Proponents and supporters are subject to intense criticism, as was apparent on completion of the new Indianapolis central library.

Second, availing every line of contracts to public scrutiny would prompt endless debate and costly delays as opponents search for details to criticize.

Third, some topics should be confidential.  Personnel evaluations are an example, as are details of intense negotiations leading to international agreements and treaties.  Contract negotiations are best conducted in private.  Privacy facilitates conversation and allows all parties to modify personal views until the final deal is made.  At that point, public disclosure is constructive.  Prior, criticism is not constructive, especially from persons who say “I favor this project, but . . . .”  Such disingenuous commentary indicates fundamental opposition which can be, should be, expressed directly.

Fourth.  Saving money is not important.  Can you believe I said that?  Think about the context.  In a billion dollar project, saving $ 5 million, or even $ 50 million, has negligible effect.  Criticism about details is nit picking.  It causes expensive delay.  Instead, critics, if they want, should oppose the entire project, saving the $ 1 billion, which is a number worth considering.


 

John Guy is a wealth manager in Indianapolis.  His book is “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale.”

 

*Above Image Courtesy of Joincube via Google Images.

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Whitney FieldsView all posts by Whitney Fields

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