Campaign for Vermont, an independent advocacy organization, released a report Monday that recommends legislative remedies for improving government transparency.
“I believe that transparency in our government is the single most important issue that we have to offer you,” said Bruce Lisman, founder of Campaign for Vermont.
The authors of the report, “Achieving Accountability: Transforming State Government into a Modern, Transparent 21st Century System,” argue that state officials measure the success of programs based on how much money is spent instead of monitoring the public impact of policy.
“Broadly speaking, there is nowhere in a consistent way where our government would tell us a set of goals, the steps to reach them, and how well we’re reaching them,” Lisman said. “Fundamentally, I think our state hasn’t committed to transparency.”
National groups have consistently given Vermont poor transparency rankings. The Center for Public Integrity, which analyzed state ethical practices and public access to government information, gave Vermont a D+ for transparency in its State Integrity Investigation last year.
The Campaign for Vermont report recommends actions the state can take to improve transparency, including creating new metrics to track policy, publishing financial records online, enforcing ethics policies for public officials and forming a Transparency and Accountability Authority that would monitor state spending and measure the success of programs.
Bill Schubart, principal at Non-Profit Governance & Strategy, is a transparency advocate who joined members of Campaign for Vermont to discuss the issue at the press conference. Schubart, who is not a member of Campaign for Vermont, said the transparency issue cuts across party lines.
“It’s much more about how wisely are our tax dollars invested in the initiatives that we agree are the purview of government: education, corrections, public safety, whatever it is,” Schubart said.
He said taxpayers want to know state tax funds are well invested.
“This is a way of rebuilding that faith,” Schubart said.
Mary Alice McKenzie, co-founder of Campaign for Vermont, said she saw the need for more transparency through her work at the Boy and Girls Club.
“At the Boys and Girls Club, I have been very concerned to learn about the lack of transparency in big systems that we pay for that should be helping move children out of poverty,” McKenzie said. “We don’t have transparency in these systems.”
The report recommends that legislation include goals and a means to evaluate whether goals have been achieved. In this scenario, politicians would have to take responsibility for policies they support.
“One of the challenges that I feel is a real problem in government is that when something fails, we are reluctant, for political purposes, to call it a failure and to retire it and to try something new with what we have learned with that failure,” Schubart said.
He said that the government’s management culture must change. Schubart said he would not have been able to grow his own company if he did not use tools to measure and report on his company’s goals and their success.
“We need a culture of measurement and accountability in government,” Schubart said.
Vermont is also reliant on an antiquated administrative model, according to the authors of the report.
“It is the public management equivalent of reading by kerosene lamp, nearly 140 years after Edison commercialized the incandescent light bulb,” the authors write.
The report does not specify which programs are inefficient.
“If you don’t have that system of measurement, you don’t know,” Schubart said. For now, he said that transparency would allow the government to spend money more effectively and efficiently.
The results of a more transparent system would be tangible, Lisman said. “We might make decisions that would have better results and get more money to places it belongs, as opposed to some administrative center.”
Lisman said did not propose a timetable for the initiatives. “Yesterday would have been great to start,” he said.
Last year Campaign for Vermont, a 501c4, was criticized for not making its own finances transparent. The organization has since released its 2011 tax return.
DISCLOSURE: Bill Schubart is the president of the Vermont Journalism Trust, which oversees VTDigger. Bruce Lisman and Mary Alice McKenzie have both donated money to VTDigger. For more information about our contributors, click here.