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'Transparent' government often elusive for right and left

September 14, 2014

When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence unveiled his new $9 million government management system, he ran down a list of ways it would make state government work better before ending with the promise that state government will also be more "transparent."

But last week's rollout of the new Management and Performance Hub, which Pence vowed will make Indiana the best state in the nation at crunching big data, was plagued with confusion — and a lack of transparency. Pence said it would help eliminate duplicative programs but didn't identify which programs he'd targeted to cut. Even the most basic question — how much the state had paid for the program — proved problematic.

The promise of "transparent" government is almost universally popular among politicians. It evokes the vision of a truly "small d" democratic government that is answerable to the people and supports the concept of public trust.

But the talking point of transparency often remains just that: a talking point.

In his first run for the White House, President Barack Obama promised better public access than ever, a pledge that struck a chord with a public that had soured on the Iraq war and scandals surrounding it. But after Obama took office, the opposite happened in many cases as his administration began tracking down government staff accused of leaking information to the press.

In an October 2013 report, former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. detailed efforts to cut off the flow of information in a manner that was the worst since Richard Nixon. The report came a few months after it was revealed that the Obama Justice Department had secretly obtained Associated Press phone records as part of a hunt for an anonymous source.

Kevin Finch, an assistant professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University and veteran Indiana journalist, said the lack of transparency is hardly a partisan issue. Instead, candidates and politicians who are out of power often want more transparency when they are seeking office but then run into roadblocks after being elected.

"I think many of them honestly believe in wanting to have an open and transparent government," Finch said.

Finch, who covered Pence while he was in Congress, remembers a politician who was very accessible and would personally return phone calls.

There's no indication that anything quite as drastic as the Obama approach has happened in Indiana. Instead, the promise of transparency has often been undercut by a general lack of public access.

Gerry Lanosga, a former Indianapolis-based investigative reporter, authored a 2013 report detailing the many holes in the state's public access laws for the State Integrity project. Indiana was ranked in the middle (C-) among other states on a range of integrity issues but was awarded an "F'' for formal public access to information.

Lanosga detailed numerous statutory loopholes in the state's public records laws. The Pence administration has demonstrated one of those loopholes with a flat refusal to provide the governor's calendar to media, citing precedent that Indiana's governors are exempt from disclosure under broad (and discretionary) rules.

Other public records requests can take months to fill.

Maybe it's time to redefine transparency.

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