There is a reason why the first three words of the United States Constitution are “We the People.” The government isn’t for the powers in Washington to overrun its citizens with. Rather it is, as Abraham Lincoln said, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
A century after and a half after the 16th President said those words in Gettysburg, you have to wonder if those words still ring true.
Citizens on both sides of the aisle believe that government needs to be transparent, because it is our government and those in Washington, or Harrisburg, or your local municipal office are purveyors of it. They don’t own it; they are temporary stewards of the people’s government.
Work done behind closed doors can be frightening to citizens because there is no real accountability. Whether it’s something as serious as the NSA gathering phone metadata or U.S. drone use on American soil, or something as innocuous as a secret PennDOT website, citizens have a right to know what the government is doing. Their tax dollars foot the bills.
Obviously the varying levels of seriousness come into play here. Do citizens need to know how the government utilizes its drone program? To an extent yes, especially when it is put in play here and not in some far-off land. But, as FBI director Robert Mueller said Wednesday in a congressional hearing, “there is a price to be paid for that transparency. I certainly think it would be educating our adversaries as to what our capabilities are.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, PennDOT’s decision to have a password protected website to display the department’s proposals is baffling. The site is available to those PennDOT sees fit, including department officials and legislators.
PennDOT’s defense is that the site does not post final plans, only proposals. Proposals, especially those using taxpayer funds, are more often than not offered for public consumption.
Transparency is almost always the best option.
Using public funds for a website featuring proposals which could turn into publically funded projects, keeping both the website and the plans secret, and then having the public find out is the reason there is distrust of government.
“It’s not like it’s earth-shattering stuff. It’s highways and bridges,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman this week. “I don’t see any good reason why they can’t go public with it.”
Neither do we.