May 20, 2009
No matter how progressive, modernized or educated we become – or think we become – from one century to the next, certain challenges of humanity never go away, and we can always return to the great thinkers of long ago to tackle the challenges of the present.
Government will always have its share of problems. From corruption, pay to play, and just plain dishonest dealings, government – run by human beings, let’s not forget – needs its checks. The idea of transparency in government, although a seemingly new idea because of its more internet-based nature, can be traced back to the days of Plato and his “Allegory of the Cave,” which can be found in Book VII of Plato’s Republic, a dialogue on justice and truth. In the allegory, chained prisoners, unable to move or turn their heads to the side and unaware a fire burns behind them, watch images on the wall in front of them and understand them as reality. One prisoner breaks loose, turns, and begins his ascent out of the cave. Coming out of the cave -- no easy journey – at first hurts the prisoner’s eyes but soon he adjusts to the light and realizes the shadows on the wall for what they are – images of the truth.
The allegory raises a number of questions. Who is running the show? What are the images on the wall? Who is controlling the source of light? And ultimately: What is the truth?
Today, transparency in government aims to provide the tool to answer those questions and shine a light on the invisible man, government, running its business and spending tax dollars behind closed doors. Most people today are analogous to Plato’s man in the cave, shackled and in the dark about how government operates.
However, and fortunately, transparency in government has gained strong popularity and appeals to many people who simply want to understand how government works and spends tax dollars. Legislators have also realized transparency helps them by making the Goliath-like amount of paperwork crossing their desks every day more manageable if they can easily look up spending, projects, contracts and vendors in a searchable database online. Plus, it is basic, good policy to understand how you’re spending money before you decide to spend more.
Citizens in Illinois understand the need for transparency in government. Its long history of corruption has jaded many and made the idea of reform and honest government almost laughable. Former Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008, and before him, Governor Ryan was sent to prison in April 2006 for "running campaigns-and government offices- like a personal piggy bank to enrich himself, family, and friends." Before Ryan, a long line of graft and organized crime has stained Illinois and developed its reputation of dirty politics.
Yet, in the last year, some light has sparked new hope of restoring trust and good government in Illinois from the local level to the state. The Illinois Policy Institute initiated a grassroots, volunteer-based program called “Liberty Leaders,” which has brought about transparency victories in local government throughout Illinois, ranging from school boards, village boards, to city councils and counties. The volunteers have developed a sort of rebirth of activism and challenged others to not accept the “This is Illinois, what do you expect?” mentality.
As the Illinois Policy Institute provides volunteers with useful tools and educates them about transparency, growing pressure has mounted on other local governments and the state. The transparency movement at the local level has created a sort of domino effect. Just this Friday on May 15, 2009, transparency legislation passed at the state level. Passing this bill faced many challenges, including the typical tricks and burying under paperwork when first introduced by Rep. Mike Tryon (R-64) in 2008 as HB4765. The original bill passed the House unanimously but stalled in the Senate Rules Committee under the leadership of Sen. Emil Jones – who is now gone. New leadership in Springfield coupled with a growing pressure from the public and persistence of those who supported HB35 and transparency have all contributed to this victory.
On a very basic level, practicing transparency entails listing all government expenditures online in an easily searchable database. Just as you can open your personal bank account online and look up your spending activity, the database would provide the details of every tax dollar spent. The site would provide a complete, itemized, and clear description of all expenditures, including but not limited to all contracts, vendors, and grants. All expenditures would have a detailed account of the payment's purpose and who authorized the payment. Shining a light on spending activity provides an extra check on legislators because now the public can watch. They aren’t in the dark anymore.
Illinois may just take the path out of Plato’s cave and turn towards the light. With the growing number of victories at the local level and now at the state level, Illinois could be on its way out of the darkness. Yet, transparency does not mean the public or legislators can throw their hands up and say “Job well done. We can rest now.” Transparency is simply a first step – not the final solution. Enacting it will provide the much-needed X-ray machine that will illuminate our state’s sickness (corruption, lack of accountability, pay-to-play politics, ineffective programs, and wasteful spending) and provide a map to cleaning up and reforming Illinois government. There is more work to do in Illinois, but growing transparency in government will help lead the way to a better, and brighter, Illinois.