Saturday, September 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Informed public key to government credibility

State capital complex in Harrisburg. Irvis building at left. View seen from Commonwealth Ave.
State capital complex in Harrisburg. Irvis building at left. View seen from Commonwealth Ave.

Survey after survey reveals that trust in government is at an all-time low, and when the public has lost faith, government is hampered in its efforts to innovate and improve its operations.

Ultimately, citizens want to know that their tax dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively. It is hard enough to understand what is happening when discussing trillion dollar deficits, billion dollar pension liabilities and their impacts on education, public safety and citizen's wallets. Unfortunately, several governments poison the discussion with the public through a variety of tried and true themes.

Those themes include:

Lies of Commission. Though not routine, fraudulent reporting of financial data does happen. In one example, San Diego released independent audits which understated its pension risks.

Lies of Omission. Many governments don't reveal their actual spending, just the goals. Until 2012, the Montgomery County budget indicated what was budgeted the previous year and the coming year, but neglected to indicate the actual spending activity of the County. Today the budget includes the all-important middle column showing what actually happened.

Then there are the fantasy world approaches which are all too common:

* The Sky is Falling: Some government leaders spend the whole year warning that finances are in terrible shape, and then surprise the public at the last minute that everything is fine.

* Nothing to See Here: Some government leaders pretend everything is fine until the last minute when they are "suddenly" faced with an insurmountable deficit that will require dramatic spending cuts or tax increases.

* Don't Blame Me: This approach involves putting out a balanced budget that doesn't actually address what needs to happen (increased funding for schools, pension payments, etc). When public pressure "forces" the obvious changes, government leaders simply claim they are responding to the public.

The bottom line is governments have little credibility, making it difficult to join in the "leap of faith" that is often required when making changes. Restoring that credibility takes time, hard work, and some advice from Thomas Jefferson: "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."

It seems like a simple concept, but it requires real effort by the public sector. Many good government types call for transparency and the release of data, and then take credit for "information dumps" which do nothing to actually inform the public. A database which highlights every government contract, without context, is meaningless. Pages of numbers without explanation, or audits with reams of footnotes in accountant-speak may represent "disclosure" but only serve to retain the veil of secrecy. It is not enough to provide data; it is incumbent on the public sector to clarify how the data relates to the activity of government.

Every level of government needs to explain to its citizens how and why it spends its money; the assumptions made when planning; admission when mistakes are made; and, identification of the unforeseen circumstances which require a plan adjustment. Describe why money is being spent on new programs, identify the goals for those activities, and how success or failure will be measured. Outreach must happen more than once a year, and should be in a manner and language that is accessible to all.

A government that makes the effort to create a well-informed citizenry will restore credibility and gain the authority to be an innovative and effective government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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Uri Monson is Chief Financial Officer for Montgomery County.His is former executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA).

Uri Monson for Philly.com
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