We’re hearing a lot these days about transparency and open government.
President Obama launched his administration with a memorandum committing to “an unprecedented level of openness in government.” Transparency, it says, “promotes accountability and information for citizens about what their Government is doing.”
Here in the District of Columbia, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chair of the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, held a roundtable on the issue a couple of weeks ago. She too was interested in processes for citizens to gain information, in the interests of “open government in the District.”
So it’s occurred to me to wonder what our leaders have in mind when they talk about transparency and openness. One clue are the focuses on new technologies and disclosure under freedom of information statutes. We see them in both the President’s directive and Cheh’s roundtable announcement.
But transparency ought to mean more than giving us access to documents our government produces. The documents ought to be clear and informative enough for us to know what our government is doing.
Back in March, I ranted on the challenges of understanding Mayor Fenty’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget. They apparently bedeviled even DC Councilmembers. As Jenny Reed at DC Fiscal Policy Institute notes, the Council wound up approving a budget for the Department of Human Services without knowing it would mean a $12 million cut for homeless services.
Would they have known if they’d opened their last round of budget deliberations to the public, as community groups requested? Perhaps taking advantage of a loophole in the District’s open meeting requirements put the Council at a disadvantage.
There’s something even more important than access and clarity. It’s truthfulness. The thing that’s got me most distressed about the saga of the homeless services budget is that we’ve been treated to a stream of half-truths and evasions.
The Fenty administration repeatedly asserted that there’d been virtually no cut in this budget–this apparently because the budget, i.e., the document presented to the Council, dealt only with the proposed local appropriation. What about the federal TANF funds and general revenue funds that had been used to supplement the appropriation? Oh well, they weren’t part of the budget.
Then, when pressed, DHS Director Clarence Carter testified that TANF funds had been transferred to homeles services last year, but that there were “no additional TANF reserve dollars to make available.” More probing needed to surface the fact that the funds hadn’t just vanished. The department decided to use them for something else.
Nevertheless, Mayor Fenty told a TV interviewer that the view that the homeless services budget had been cut was “either a miscommunication or a distortment [sic] of the facts.” The reality, he said, was that a contractor overspent its budget last year and wasn’t going to get extra money this year just because of “inefficiencies.”
The contractor here is apparently the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which manages homeless services for the District. It’s hard to see how the Partnership–or any contractor for that matter–could actually spend more than the District provided unless it used funds from other sources. The purported overrun is instead almost surely the funds Carter testified his department had transferred.
So Fenty’s account is less than a half-truth. It’s a deliberate and harmful “distortment of the facts.” Harmful not only to the Partnership. Harmful to what’s supposed to be a democratic process.
If the Fenty administration had felt it had to cut funding for homeless services, then it should have said so straight out. The Council could have agreed to the cut, adjusted funding priorities or even done more to raise revenues. We would have had an opportunity to say what we wanted our elected representatives to do.
Our local government is bogged down in recriminations, charges and counter-charges and pervasive mistrust. The lack of transparency about homeless services is far from the only reason. But it’s a good example of how far the District has to go to be a genuinely open government and what happens when transparency falls by the wayside.
NOTE: Thanks to Mike DeBonis, a.k.a. Loose Lips, for alerting me and many others to the TV interview and for his acute comments on the Mayor’s assertions.