Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Transparency Illusion


By Bill Kraus

One of the precepts underlying our democracy is that those who run the place will be accountable to an informed electorate.

This is not holding up well.

More and more, those who run the place do not share the information about what they are doing and why as freely as expected. Those in power quickly learn that information is power and tend to hold onto it for that reason alone.

Worse yet the electorate is less and less interested in how the place is run and has become addicted to outsourcing. Outsourcing is a synonym for “not interested.”

Added to these weaknesses is the fact that the undesirable side effect of the awesome internet is that it took away the advertisers who provided most of the money needed to pay for a wide ranging, well staffed, news-gathering system that reported fully, even fairly in most cases, on who is running the place and how.

The informed electorate is more and more uninformed.

This disturbing conclusion can be validated by asking questions.

The first question is “Who represents you in the Wisconsin Assembly?” A surprising number of people cannot answer this question.

Those respondents who can answer this question correctly can be grilled more deeply about what I consider pretty basic stuff that an informed electorate should have easy access to from a transparent, communication-driven government, which ours is not.

My top three test questions are:

1. What is the largest single expenditure item in the state budget?
2. Why is the Wisconsin property tax so much higher than that of most other states?
3. What drives the Wisconsin budget (a) the cost of state employees (b) the large number of expensive regulatory agencies (c) the beneficiaries--individual and/or institutional--of state funded programs?

The likelihood that a questioner will get an accurate answer to any of these questions is low; that a questioner will get accurate answers to all of them is infinitesimal.

We don’t know, because we aren’t told in ways that are clear and easy to comprehend.

Public corporations report in much greater detail and with much greater clarity on where they get their money and how they spend it than governments do.

Simple measures would fill these communications gaps, and I am at a loss to explain why these measures are not mandated or taken.

Property tax bills could be itemized like a grocery bill. If this was done, taxpayers would know that the cost of the technical college system is paid with property taxes and is the main reason those taxes are so high.

Simple input and output charts on state spending that show where the money goes would make clear that prisons and universities are directly paid for by the state, and that most of the state budget is redistributed to municipalities, local schools, and programs that pay health and welfare benefits. They would also reveal to that high profile departments where most state employees work, like the Department of Natural Resources for example, are annoying perhaps but economically inconsequential.

Transparency, in short, is mostly talk. Reporting is pitiful. Neither will change until and unless we who are meant to be part of an informed electorate start squawking.

I’m squawking.

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