Transparency, via GAO and Academia

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Paul Blumenthal just came across this document from the GAO, transcribing a pithy speech by the Comptroller General of the United States, David Walker (the head of the GAO). Transparent Government and Access to Information: A Role for Supreme Audit Institutions provides a neat tour of the advantages of transparent public administration, from the viewpoint at the top of the nation’s leading accountability officer.

(more after the jump.)

Transparency and accountability are especially important in the public sector. Around the world, government services directly affect the well-being of countless citizens. But sound decisions on government programs and policies are nearly impossible without timely, accurate, and useful information. Furthermore, government employees hold a public trust that must be recognized, respected, and honored.

…Transparency also puts pressure on public officials to make difficult but necessary policy and operational choices. Politicians find that avoiding tough issues isn’t so easy when voters and the press are looking over their shoulders.

…What’s also at stake here is government credibility. Transparency and accountability can build public trust in government. Without openness, people tend to assume the worst, even when their skepticism isn’t justified.

…In my view, independent, well-run, and adequately resourced supreme audit institutions (SAI) like GAO are essential to effective government. Strong SAIs help to ensure policymakers and the public have access to timely and accurate information [and] also hold government officials and programs accountable for results.

…GAO also seeks to lead by example on issues of transparency and accountability. GAO makes it a point to publicly report almost all of its work.

I (obviously) think the whole document is worth a read. It absolutely reinforces my belief that built in mechanisms of accountability are essential to a functioning democratic government, that the public should be involved in and aware of their oversight, and that the scope and effective administering of such oversight programs needs to continue to evolve as government grows and changes. Endemic oversight mechanisms should be especially encouraged by the increase in citizens’ potential as government watchdogs and participants in policymaking that the Internet brings.

To shape the development of policy that encourages robust and effective public (and administrative) oversight, we should be attentive to the themes of transparency that resonate throughout the current policy and governmental landscape. For example, where should the line be between public and private, in a legislative setting? What is the proper scope of a FOIA law? When is classification appropriate? When should lawmakers or industry use discretion in deciding what to disclose, and when should government set a standard policy?

A few academics at Harvard have been considering exactly these questions, and have a series of papers drawing helpful parallels and making broad conclusions about how to effectively administer good transparency policy. (see especially the papers at the bottom of this page.)

I’ve just started digging into the details, and so far the first paper I’m reading is stuffed with detail. (I have to quote more selectively here; the papers are copyrighted.)

In the United States, nutritional labeling, public school report cards, restaurant grading systems, campaign finance disclosure, toxic pollution reporting, auto safety and fuel economy ratings, and corporate financial reporting are among scores of transparency systems created by federal and state legislators.

…Government-mandated disclosure plays a unique role in supplementing and correcting the private provision of socially relevant information.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this, and the other papers. Academia, advocacy, and government should be better connected.

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