The Price of Transparency

The use of websites by governments as a means to increase budgetary transparency by providing easily accessible information doesn’t stop growing. The Center for Fiscal Accountability does a great job by periodically tracking these initiatives across the United States and its latest update, in March, provides a listing of 26 websites that have gone live since 2007.

More impressive is the growing number of legislative initiatives across the U.S. aiming at increasing and deepening the information provided to citizens in an easy and accessible way. The Center for Fiscal Accountability report on State Legislative Transparency Effortsshows that since the beginning of this year 34 bills have been sponsored across 21 states. However, between proposing a bill and having it translated into policy output there is a long and winding road where political and organizational constraints may affect the outcomes originally intended by the legislator (assuming that he/she acts in good faith).

For instance, this week the New Mexico Senate voted unanimously to create a searchable, online database of state spending. According to the sponsor of the measure, Sen. Sander Rue, such a measure will “demystify the state budget” and increase public interest and participation in spending decisions. According to The New Mexican, during the Senate floor debate Sen. Rue humorously commented on the measure “I’m doing this purely for selfish reasons: So I can better understand the budget” and added “and if anyone else wants to follow after me, that’s fine”.

However, resistance seems to have come from many fronts, such as New Mexico’s Department of Information and Technology (DoIT). The DoIT makes the obvious declaration that it supports initiatives related to budget transparency (would it ever say the opposite?) but claims not to have the resources to comply with the measure. According to a report prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee the DoIT – in a rather dissuasive manner – claims that depending on the depth of data provided, the fiscal impact on the agency could vary from US$25.000 to US$1 million. That is not all: the agency estimates that implementation costs will range from US$ 1 million to US$ 3 million.

The Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) itself does not see much importance in the initiative either. In its Fiscal Impact Report it states that legislation is already searchable on the internet in various formats such as New Mexico’s state website and the Secretary of State’s website. Last, but not least, the LFC report also adds that “public entities are subject to the Freedom of Information Act and information is available through that avenue.” Finally, the report concludes that in case Sen. Rue’s bill is not enacted, “The public will continue to access State of New Mexico appropriations through the web using other alternatives”. A quick overview of both websites and LFC’s mention of the Freedom of Information act raises serious doubts about LFC’s concept of what easily and accessible information consists of. The bill was approved by the Senate with a score of 38 votes in favor and none against. Now it goes to the House and we shall see what happens next.

Having interviewed many stakeholders in similar processes, I believe that the New Mexico case is far from just anecdotal evidence. Rather, it illustrates the often-underestimated role (positive or negative) that civil servants might have in turning the will of a political agent (in this case Sen. Rue) into a policy output. As Michel Crozier pointed out in 1964, considering the privileged possession of information and expertise, civil servants naturally dispose of discretionary margins that enable them to reinterpret and alter demands that are made to them.  It should be expected that civil servants’ influence and discretionary margin is particularly accentuated when it comes to the highly specialized domain of ICTs, where the asymmetry of technical knowledge between elected officials and civil servants is clearly to the advantage of the latter. For instance, concerning estimations of the amount of resources necessary to implement the system proposed by Sen. Rue the DoIT has the upper hand, and the estimated budget presented by the DoIT (between US$25.000 to US$1 million) is typical of implicit negotiations that take place in processes of this nature: “we can do it of course, but to do it well all depends on what you give us”.

Easy access to information involves many factors and in the end, the website that we will see in New Mexico will be among other things the result of a compromise between actors’ preferences: civil servants might be compelled to implement it, but unfortunately or not, it would be a bad idea to tell the DoIT to just do it.

(find more related posts at the Participatory Budgeting Facebook group)


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