Public Assets Institute > Press > What Others are Saying > Open government goes beyond access

Open government goes beyond access

Editorial, Burlington Free Press
May 5, 2009

There’s little point in opening government records to the public if the information is too difficult to find, sort through or taxes the everyday understanding of the average Vermonter. Too often that’s the case with what we get from Montpelier, especially when it comes to the budget.

In keeping track of our government, the budget is always a good place to start. There’s little Montpelier can do without spending our money. That means the spending plan often speaks more clearly and loudly about how state government affects our lives than all the public pronouncements of our elected officials and bureaucrats combined.

With billions of dollars at stake, Vermont’s state budget is difficult to navigate for all but the true policy wonk or professional Montpelier watcher. Access to information that tells us what our government is up to is indispensable in a democracy. Yet the complexity of policy debates today means that access is only the first step.

This is even more true as open records move onto the serve-yourself world of Web sites and online databases. In cyberspace, there’s no clerk at the front desk to find the file you need. You have to master the art of the search engine, then sort through the results for the right document. And that’s just the start.

In our busy lives, time often is the deciding factor in what we choose to do. If tracking down government documents takes too long, that might be disincentive enough for too many people.

That’s why we applaud liberal Paul Cillo and conservative John McClaughry for recognizing their common interest and working to create a Web site that aims to make it easier to see where state government gets its money and where that money is spent. This is a work in progress, and we’ve yet to see the results.

Much of the information Cillo and McClaughry seek to sort out is available now, much of it on state Web sites, but what’s there isn’t always easy to find or to decipher. Most people lack the time to track down the raw information and dig through to find what they’re looking for.

Vermonters would be happier if this were state government putting in the kind of effort to increase its transparency. Too often, what stands out is efforts by all branches and levels of government to limit access. In our democracy, government has an obligation to be accessible to the people.

Making it easier to understand the whys and whats of the budget can only help Vermonters be better informed about and more engaged in what happens in their state capital. When the voices extend and reach into the community, the message becomes heard just a little more.

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