This article, written on April 4, 2017, is a good introduction into what this site is about.
As we conclude this election process in Nauvoo, I wanted to write this open letter. Regardless of who wins, I want to express some thoughts, independent of the outcome, and the best way seems to be to do that before a winner is selected.
Transparency and Openness
As the campaign has progressed, an early topic of conversation raised by Matt Kennedy was “transparency.” Why would this be such a focus I asked myself? As I listened to Matt explain, I realized that so many of the other issues facing the City are made less daunting if transparency is part of the solution. Transparency invites comment, involvement and solutions. Lack of transparency discourages dialog, participation and hope.
In a typical company, the owners of a company have full access to all documents, finances, employee contracts, etc. As the owner, and employer they have every right. In a city, the citizens are the employer. They have every right to know how the company (city) is being run, how the money is being spent, and how the employees are performing.
I was personally surprised by the level of shock and rejection this concept drew early in the mayoral campaign. People reacted in frustration, felt attacked, or denied it was an issue. I didn’t understand the outrage, but on further reflection, perhaps there are some understandable misconceptions, and also some disappointing reasons for this reaction.
First the understandable confusion. There are those who think that transparency is the act of being able to ask for something, which will then be shared if appropriate. It is seen as a request. They argue that this opportunity exists for everyone in Nauvoo; “Just ask,” they say.
Others consider the very act of asking the question an accusation. The “request” seems to imply some kind of impropriety or mistrust. The irony of this position is that it falls directly on the heels of the first, that transparency implies a request must be made. Since a request must precede the transparency, any attempt at gaining transparency implies distrust or corruption. Requests are then discouraged, either by design, or by circumstance.
As I see transparency, and the way I use the term, transparency is the ability of anyone to see anything, at will. From a practical standpoint, some limitations must be placed on this principle. Some elements of privacy should still be protected, and transparency should not extend to those areas that truly should remain private, for health, welfare or security reasons. And this is where the challenges begin, even in my definition of transparency. Who’s the judge? Who gets to decide what is private, personal, or a matter of security?
These definitions and restrictions should always be made outside of the influence of any specific request, so the outcome is not used as a justification. In the case of governmental transparency, it is the people who have defined what is personal, private or a security risk. This was done in the context of a Freedom of Information Act in the State of Illinois. It clearly identifies what is the people’s right to access, and what is sensitive. And if there is a disagreement of whether these guidelines have been followed, provides a mechanism for reviewing the information in question; a formal Request for Review may be filed with the State Attorney General, who will then decide the merits.
But missing in this process is a foundational understanding. If you begin from the foundation that “release anything not specifically restricted by law” you get a different result than beginning with “only release what we have to”. Beginning with the former results in a powerful level of openness that provides citizens with anonymous, broad and complete access to financial information, processes and decisions being made on their behalf. The later restricts citizens to a formal process (FOIA requests), a potentially stressful one (asking in person), or an incomplete one (relying only on what is published or said in public meetings).
Transparency extends beyond the physical nature of documents, to the area of ideas and discussions as well. Truly transparent meetings are those that not only tolerate an audience, but those that embrace the conversation and ideas that come from them. There is openness in how decisions are made, and lively dissent is embraced. Unanimous decisions are not the necessary outcome, but open statements of issues and concerns is. Dissent is not seen as a weakness, but as a sign of the level of comfort citizens and their representatives feel in being open.
Citizens are best served when the principles of the Freedom of Information Act are implemented without the need of a formal request ever being written.
The consequences of this type of transparency are as easy to identify as their opposite. When transparency exists, there is full, justified trust. There is engagement. When it is not, there is lack of involvement, and new ideas are not brought forward. This can be interpreted as a lack of interest, but it may actually be a lack of hope.
Transparency as a Principle
Another level of transparency is also beneficial to communities. That is personal transparency. I am not suggesting that every individual’s lives should be open to every other individual. Privacy as a personal right is understood. However, in the areas where our lives interact and overlap with the lives of others, some understanding of transparency can be beneficial.
The idea that we have a responsibility to be open in our public discussions, and not hide behind secrecy or “private conversation” can help reduce the destruction that gossip and ill-speaking can do. Just as transparency in government builds trust, and encourages open dialog, the same is true in communities.
When individuals trust that their ideas are valued, and that others are not being destructive in their discussions, information sharing, trust and encouragement can thrive. And with these characteristics personal involvement and contribution follow. This is where the two areas of transparency overlap; governmental and personal. As members of the community begin to trust, they will be more involved.
The responsibility for transparency is widespread. It is not simply the responsibility of the government to offer it, it is the responsibility of citizens to require it. It is within the ability of each citizen to expect, even to demand it.
As issues arise in the community, if there are questions, the ideal situation would be to have information easily available to quickly put issues to rest. Being forced to use the FOIA process escalates even a simple request to the arena of legal process. There are even claims that it is unfair to the city, or other citizens, due to the cost of answering such requests. A more practical method should be utilized, that allows anonymous, broad access to information that has already been redacted as necessary. A website is the most common solution cities utilize, and at this stage of technology solutions are readily available and very cost effective.
Transparency is a key element of controlling costs, encouraging citizen participation, developing ownership of city decisions by citizens, and instilling the idea of civic ownership. I believe that embracing transparency will signal a new day for the City of Nauvoo. Transparency will encourage participation, and trust, and hope. And right now, Nauvoo needs new hope as we build new opportunity, advance ideas and create excitement.