Trust requires more than government telling the truth

Governments like to parade accountability and outcomes. But they have to do more than delivering on selected results and telling a bare minimum of convenient truths.
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Trust is often in short supply at all levels of government: an Occupy protest in New Mexico.

Governments like to parade accountability and outcomes. But they have to do more than delivering on selected results and telling a bare minimum of convenient truths.

A great deal has been written about the need for transparency in government. This call for transparency has come from the lack of it being part of the American culture of government that has evolved over the decades.  

The image many Americans have of the governments that serve them is that most decisions are made in the equivalent of “smoke filled rooms” where deals are cut and palms greased with money or favors. A revolving list of investigations, indictments, convictions, and resignations continues to reinforce this image of how a corrupt form of government works.

All of this breeds a contempt for elected officials and public employees, who are only seen as feeding at the public trough. Government workers are viewed as lazy and doing the minimum in order to collect their inflated salaries, rich benefits, and, eventually, a pension. These images have led to a mistrust and disrespect for government in general.

One response to this has been for governments to try to counter these impressions by providing accountability for their actions. This has led to the current move toward establishing systems that provide for more transparency; the ideal being to establish metrics and processes that show results from the investment of the public’s tax dollars.

Generally these transparency efforts have focused on being data-driven statistics, such as the number of potholes filled, services provided to individuals and families, or reduction in crime or prisoner counts due to new methods of setting and imposing standards.

The challenge is that governments still have not gotten the message about being accountable. There is a difference between telling the truth and real transparency. Many aspects of government, and I’d add business, allow individuals and organizations to “tell the truth” without being totally transparent. The facts and statistics that are chosen to be shared support a storyline that they want to be told. Other facts and statistics, or even actions, that do not support the preferred storyline are not shared.

Real transparency demands telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Every parent with a teenager has engaged in the 10 questions necessary to get to the bottom of what the teen’s plans are for an evening. Where are you going? Who will you be with? What will you be doing? When will you be home? Those are the types of questions you need to “dig” for to get at the truth. Governments and teens have a great deal in common when it comes to being transparency challenged.

One of the ways that governments hide their true intentions are via established processes that are followed to the letter; yet for many the outcomes are already known. This is especially true in the hiring process and the contracting process.

In order to hire a government civil service position you must have a competitive process. Generally, people looking to compete for positions from outside an organization will ask the question, “Is there an internal candidate?” The reason for the question is that beyond the internal person being better known is the fact that in the hiring authority's mind there may already be a preferred candidate who “just needs to go through the process to be selected.” This is not publicized, but it is a common situation to encounter.

The other common challenge is winning a government contract. Before a government contract is awarded, it must be publicly advertised and companies must compete for the project by submitting a written proposal that includes a budget. It is not uncommon for a contractor to go through a process to decide if they should bid on a contract based on what information they know about the work to be done, the government advertising the work, and who their potential competitors will be for the work. The most basic of questions asked is, “Is this contract already ‘wired’ for one company?”

If there is a history of open and competitive bidding for projects, why would this last question ever be asked? It is true that “wired” doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a dirty deal being done with government officials being bribed to award a contract. It may only mean that the company that is seen as having an inside track has the advantage because it has done previous work for the government in the past and has a good reputation with them.

Interestingly, another contractor word used is “capture.” Capture work is that work done in advance of a public request for proposal being made to “sell” the government on your qualifications to do some future work that is projected to come available in the near future. It is an interesting choice of words since if the company is successful; does that mean that the government is their prisoner?

In reality there are many ethics rules that have been put in place to guide government employees in ensuring that there isn’t a conflict of interest and favoritism shown to any one individual or company—yet, this lingering perception of a lack of transparency and “going through the motions” in using processes to cover what they want to accomplish, but can’t do unilaterally without violating some rule.

Real transparency is not supposed to be translucent, but like looking through a freshly cleaned and spotless window. For governments to achieve this reputation they must not only follow the letter of the law or process, but also the intent. Free and open competition for jobs, contract work and the whole gamut of opportunities is needed to establish a new relationship with the general public.

When truth and transparency fail, trust is broken and we have the results that we have today with an unhappy electorate that only tolerates their government rather than celebrating what we have achieved as the American dream.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Holdeman

Eric Holdeman

Eric Holdeman, is the former director of the King County Office of Emergency Management.