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Transparency’s role in addressing civil unrest and other crises

Jul 31, 2020 by AFP

Government transparency always matters. During times of crisis, it’s even more critical for officials to share vital information with the public.

Openness is essential to any attempt at halting Americans’ growing mistrust of government. A 2020 PEW report found that “among all Americans, confidence in the federal government and elected officials continues a decades-long descent. In 1958, about three quarters (73 percent) expressed trust in government in Washington to do what’s right. Today, only 17 percent do.”

As the American people and their leaders respond to the twin crises posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest sparked by the protests in response to George Floyd’s killing, having the information necessary to make informed decisions will make for safer, healthier outcomes.

“Whether you’re a journalist looking for details on how the Small Business Administration distributed Paycheck Protection Program loans, an activist calling for greater access to police misconduct records, or a member of the Pennsylvania legislature working to allow constituents to retain access to their government during a pandemic, the common motivation is a recognition that information empowers,” said David Voorman, senior policy analyst for Free Expression initiatives at Americans for Prosperity.

  • The Paycheck Protection Program was created to assist companies harmed by government-imposed lockdowns in response to the coronavirus. Rollout of the $350 billion program was beset with problems, and few provisions were made for transparency. After complaints from lawmakers, journalists, and concerned citizens, SBA agreed to disclose some information, including the business names and types, addresses, the number of jobs supported, and loan amounts (in broad ranges) for about 75 percent of the money disbursed.
  • Americans rallying to ensure community safety and equal rights need a full picture of what goes on in the field. Too often, the picture is blurry, incomplete, or nonexistent. We should not have to depend on a passerby with a smartphone camera, or even a persistent journalist or police whistleblower, to obtain that information. Federal, state, and local governments should join forces to gather and provide comprehensive data that can inform policies aimed at creating a policing culture of accountability.
  • In Pennsylvania, the state legislature unanimously passed a measure that prohibits the governor from using a disaster declaration as a justification to ignore or deny public records requests. These are vital tools for holding government accountable—critical during times of state/nationwide disasters. With so many state offices shuttered because of the pandemic, legislators sought to ensure that transparency was not given short shrift. “A crisis is no reason for elected officials to ignore questions from the public,” said state Rep. Seth Grove, the bill’s author.

Open government should not be a partisan issue. Citizens of every persuasion want to know what their government is up to. And officials of every persuasion have, at one time or another, worked either to prevent or facilitate information sharing, depending on circumstances. Americans for Prosperity is working to establish a civic culture in which government transparency is the default setting.