Transparency in government
Thomas Jefferson remarked on the importance of transparency in government 200 years ago: “We might hope to see the finances as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress, and every man of every mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently, to control them.”
Today, transparency in government operations is no less important and is discussed at all levels of government. Driving the demand for information are accountability, understanding of spending priorities, economic conditions, identification of businesses opportunities and political scandals.
The National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) will release a position paper this fall focusing on the importance and role of transparency in the public procurement process. The work of a subcommittee of the NIGP Policy and Position Committee, the paper provides an overview of the historical importance of transparency in a democracy and of the contemporary tools available to enable greater transparency. The NIGP position paper will also offer a series of recommendations governments can adopt to achieve transparency in practice without undue burden.
Ironically, modern tools such as technology-based information systems can transform the 200-year-old philosophical ideal of transparency into an achievable reality accessible to anyone with a web browser.
Procurement in the public sector plays a unique role in the execution of democratic government. Procurement both supports internal customers to enable them to effectively achieve their missions and serves as stewards of the public’s tax dollars.
In a democratic society, public awareness and understanding of government practice ensure stability and confidence in governing systems. Awareness and understanding of government practices rely greatly on the public’s ability to access the information relevant to its interests. Ease of information access and understanding is more succinctly referred to as “transparency.”
In his 2009 inaugural address, President Obama emphasized the importance of transparency in government practice and its value in holding government accountable for its actions “… And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
Today’s democracies enjoy the benefits of evolved information technology systems that aggregate and communicate government information to those who would benefit by it. Unfortunately, not all government entities are equally financially able to provide their publics with the technology-based information systems that maximize transparency. Though perhaps unintended, the consequence is a community less able to ensure that its government is acting in a manner that effectively balances the needs of all its constituents.
Ultimately, the goal of transparency is to provide sufficient information to allow private citizens to view and/or monitor government spending. Access to information is the best way to protect taxpayers’ dollars against abuse and fraud. To this end, entities should align financial and human resources to support existing and proposed transparency legislation appropriately; utilize the capacities of contemporary data technologies; and identify a procurement liaison to facilitate requests for data and guide its appropriate use.
The ideal of transparency in government practice is fundamental to successful democratic process. Transparency has been a recurring topic of focus for leaders of democracies throughout history. The manner in which government conducts itself in its business transactions immediately affects public opinion and the public’s trust in its political leaders.
In addition to garnering the public’s good will and strengthened trust, the more practical, measurable business benefits of transparency are increased competition and better-value goods and services. Standardization of process, simplified information requirements and availability of information all make doing business with government much more attractive to the supplier community.
Today, democracies enjoy the benefits of database and networking technologies that support achievement of the transparency ideal. For many government entities, however, identifying the financial resources for enhanced information systems is a challenge. Nevertheless, with awareness that the enabling knowledge and tools exist, it is a challenge that political leaders have the capacity to overcome. Through their budget debates, they can demonstrate their commitment to a principal operating tenet of democracy. In so doing, they grasp the opportunity to improve the financial performance of their government, to strengthen their personal platform for continued leadership and to establish a legacy of trust for all government constituents.
Editor’s Note: NIGP’s position paper, “Transparency in Government; Transparency in Government Procurement,” is expected to be published in the fall of 2010. Find it on www.nigp.org by searching “Transparency” in the Resource Library. This article is based on the position paper’s preamble and concluding paragraphs.