Campaign for Vermont recommends government transparency initiatives

Bruce Lisman. Photo by Anne Galloway

Bruce Lisman. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

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.

Mary Alice McKenzie. Photo by Anne Galloway

Mary Alice McKenzie. Photo by Anne Galloway

“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.

John Herrick


  1. Bob Stannard :

    …and who would disagree with this; calling for more transparency in government?

    No one, which sums up what Mr. Lisman is hoping to do through his Campaign for Vermont. He is taking on issues with which few, if any, people would disagree. It’s the oldest sales technique in the book. Get people nodding their head yes in support of your message. They support your message; they support you.

    Where is Mr. Lisman’s group on GMO labeling, or the F-35, decriminalizing and/or legalizing marijuana, or Patient’s Choice or any real tough issue? There’s little information available on their website about anything controversial.

    Maybe that’s the plan.

  2. Fred Woogmaster :

    I agree with the essence of Mr. Stannard’s comments and questions.

    I wonder: Now that our present governor has made himself into a ‘dangling partisan’, are they – like Mr. Lisman – going to come out from the woodwork to present themselves as noble challengers; I hope not.

    Then again, although we have never met, I was struck by Mr. Lisman’s expensive radio campaign a while back, thinking each time I heard his voice how those ads were paid for, probably, by money that was generated on Wall Street by the robber barons of today. Unfair? Perhaps.

    Transparency? One only sees what has been placed there.
    How about truth and honesty? Where we see it all!

  3. Dan Carver :

    I disagree with Mr Stannard’s comment about this not being a realy tough issue. Transparency with regards to how effectively and efficiently 5+ billion dollars a year are spent, with growth at an alarming rate, is a real tough issue. The only folks that wouldn’t care about this pay minimal taxes, apathetic, or are benefitting by the lack of oversight and transparency.
    How much time did our legislture spend exploring new revenue streams this session versus having the data to discuss if prior decision areas are meeting expectations, and/or discussing how to reallocate ineffective spending to important areas that are cash starved?
    I do realize, in another article, many Vermonters think our label as an anti-business state is a perception problem, so they may think transparency is a perception problem, also. If so, then let’s have more transparency to show how effective and effecient our programs are, and the dollars spent to support them.
    Enlightened people can create great solutiosn to problems, but they need to know the full picture. Why keep the majority of people in the dark? Without clean data, folks who care, will remain suspicious.

  4. Jason Farrell :

    While advocating for a more transparent government, has the Campaign for Vermont kept its promise regarding transparency? This is a quote made by Mr. Lisman in February of 2012 as reported by Seven Days columnist, Andy Bromage.

    “Lisman told Fair Game that he is the sole contributor to the campaign, but he wouldn’t discuss how much money he’s put into it or how much has been spent. Asked if he would make that information public, Lisman replied, “I’m not sure yet. Eventually. We believe in transparency, so, eventually, sure.”

    • Craig Powers :

      Has the State of VT kept it’s promise of transparency regarding the massive health care changes it has implemented with the 1/1/14 Vermont Health Connect Exchange? I would say no.

      I have heard that something like 70% of the 110,000 people being forced to buy from ONLY this Exchange have no idea what is coming on 1/1/14.

      CFV has a very valid point about our esteemed State government being more transparent. Hope those state health care “navigators” can handle all the phone calls that will be coming when the 70% get their health insurance cancellation letters.

  5. jimmy fordham :

    two 1%’ers seeking transparency in government…yeah..sure. what is their real agenda?

  6. Jim Mulligan :

    The other day courtesy VTDIGGER I read an op-ed by David Coates and Lisa Ventriss from which I extract the following:

    “Vermont has been faced with the underfunding of state worker and teacher pensions and retiree health care benefits for many years, and we have been reporting regularly to Vermonters on this critical financial issue.

    As of June 30, 2012, the state’s liability for these obligations was $3.2 billion; up $500 million just since 2009. This is a path that will eventually lead to financial disaster for our state and future generations of Vermonters. For comparison purposes, the state currently owes $506 million in General Obligation bonds that it is paying from the General Fund; unlike the pension and retiree health benefits that is underfunded to the tune of over $80 million per year. In addition, the state has been taking over $20 million each year from the Teachers’ Pension Fund assets to pay for their retiree health care costs. This annual underfunding and raiding of the Teachers’ Pension Fund will not stop unless substantial changes are made now. Policymakers have been wrestling with this problem for years and have failed to find a solution.”

    Now having followed GASB-45, as best I can in a couple of venues for about a decade and the Pews Charitable Trusts’ #s for years, I obviously applaud transparency but considering what has been wrought with or without it, I am more inclined toward an autopsy at this stage.

    In the early 90ty the Vermont Agency of Administration Department of Finance and Management produced a 9″ by 6″ pamphlet of 15 pages that afforded a comprehensive and comprehendible annual Fiscal Summary. The year it drifted away my inquiry as to it’s whereabouts was met with words to the effect that it’s discontinuance was prompted by “expense control” or phraseology akin thereto.

    Now considering the numbers above, even introducing the Pew tempering percentile on the Retiree Health Care portion how is it that a population of 626,000 with a median household income in the $55,000 range find themselves so burdened?

  7. Walter Carpenter :

    “Asked if he would make that information public, Lisman replied, “I’m not sure yet. Eventually. We believe in transparency, so, eventually, sure.”

    Jason, thanks for putting this quote up. I wonder how transparent Mr. Lisman was with his customers when he was on Wall Street and the whole bubble had popped in 2008.

    “Has the State of VT kept it’s promise of transparency regarding the massive health care changes it has implemented with the 1/1/14 Vermont Health Connect Exchange? I would say no.”

    I am not sure how they can be any less transparent with all the information that they have since all the information is readily available on the usual sources for any Vermonter who wants to take a look at it and has been out in the media for some time now.

  8. Jim McGurn :

    The returns for 2011 501c4 are interesting. Someone sure has a lot of money to play with. What about the 2012 returns? Were there ads paid for against any candidates? Have campaign finance laws been transgressed here?



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