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Transparency

By John Guy on March 11, 2016 in Civic Blog
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To accomplish, or to openly process?

Academics, such as those in the Indiana University Center for Civic Literacy, argue that open, transparent and thoroughly debated process is as important as result, usually referring to planning and construction of a physical facility.  Here is a quote from The Center:

“The way in which you achieve a goal is often just as important–sometimes even more important–than the goal itself.”  To me, understanding process and transparency is 50 % of civic literacy.  The other 50 % is learning how to accomplish, to propose, to obtain a policy goal or completion of a tangible project.

Ancient and modern coliseums, roads and highways, bridges and airports, define civilizations.  Accomplishments of The Romans, The Egyptians, and The Inca are represented to us by the quality and durability of their public projects.  The Interstate Highway System including the Indiana Toll Road, our City County Building, modern high schools and airports, give us excellent opportunities to travel, to meet together socially, and to enjoy sports and arts.  Were each built “transparently?”  Maybe.  I do not remember. The self-evident value of these projects supersedes theoretical commentary about how they were built.

“Transparency” became a lightning rod argument against construction of a new judicial center.  While stating that we need a judicial center, critics such as an association of architects helped to stop the project altogether because they objected to the process by which it was to have been achieved, its projected costs, and the absence of detailed disclosures about contract negotiations.  Proponents spoke in the positive, with detailed drawings, specifications, and cost estimates.  Opponents offered no alternatives for location, design or financing, presenting only hyperbole about imagined deficiencies and total cost.

(Uniquely, the judicial center project was presented with a cost of over $1 billion, a thirty-year estimate.  Most projects are presented with construction costs only, which, for the judicial center, was less than $200 million.  Naturally, the high figure generated opposition.)

Implied or stated elements of criticisms are that fraud and favoritism are present.  Of the two, no doubt, favoritism is present.  Persons and companies awarded public contracts are “favored” one way or another, either through business negotiation or competitive bidding.  Whenever I lost a deal, my first reaction was favoritism.  I imagined that somehow my proposal was superior, rejected only for political reasons.  By the hindsight of many years, I am not so sure.  Could it be that only my pride and ego were speaking, that I was a sore loser?

Fraud?   Sure.  Entirely possible.  Ten percent of members of any group are jerks, possibly leading to an adage attributed to Mark Twain:  if you plan to do business only with honest persons, you will not do much business.  Meanwhile, in so many cases, jerks are discovered, and justice rendered.

Was not the judicial center project publicly proposed and transparent?  We knew location, design, capacity and costs.  Citizens had plenty of opportunity—months and months—to comment on this “project du jour.”  Critics of the judicial center ignored efforts having much greater expense and little transparency.  Those projects are construction of I-69 south, new pavement of urban streets, and modifications to U.S. 31 north, including the massive new interchange at I-465 and Meridian, among others.

Is process “just as” important as result?  Not to me, but I appreciate that stating as much to students is a strong case for honesty.  On the other hand, students need to understand the practicalities of mounting any project, public or private, which always involve opposition.  A course about handling opposition will help them in real life.

john.guyJohn Guy is an investment advisor, and author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale.”

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Whitney FieldsView all posts by Whitney Fields

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