The headline on a recent op-ed written by former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels made a bold, sweeping statement that caught our attention.
“Government ‘transparency’ has gone too far.”
In the piece, Daniels, currently the president of Purdue University, starts by offering up a scene from the novel “The Circle,” in which calls for transparency create a nightmare world, where privacy and personal autonomy are destroyed and public officials wear body cameras and microphones every waking moment. This world, according to Daniels, isn’t so far-fetched.
The current “obsession” with transparency has rendered government “less nimble, less talented and less effective,” forcing honest people to become “scofflaws” in pursuing their duties, he writes.
While acknowledging that government “is better off for the open-door and open-record reforms of the past half-century,” Daniels argues that this whole openness idea has gotten out of hand, and is perhaps too much of a good thing. After all, he says, “even water has a fatal dosage level. Too much exercise can be unhealthy. Attempts to eliminate all forms of interaction in government come with downsides.”
An interesting theory. But the notion that there’s too much transparency, that the workings of government have become an open book, with way too much oversharing, doesn’t square with reality. A reality faced by the journalists here at The Tribune.
As documented in a recent story, a Tribune reporter came up against roadblocks in trying to see court files for three criminal cases in Elkhart County. Despite the fact that such requests are routine, these requests for court files were anything but routine after a judge issued orders that barred access to all police reports that were in the three court files; to all exhibits that were shown to jurors during the trials; and to all briefs filed on appeal. And that’s only a partial list of the records she denied, some in violation of Indiana’s open records law, according to the state’s appointed watchdog on access issues.
Another example that runs counter to the notion of transparency run amok was the initial refusal of Transpo to publicly disclose the reason it fired its CEO and general manager last year — a violation of Indiana’s public records law, according to the state’s public access counselor. Turns out that allegations of verbal abuse directed against the fired employee went unaddressed for years, and more than $55,000 was spent on lawyer fees to defend against Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.
Through the years, The Tribune has had numerous tug-of-wars and has gone back-and-forth with cities, school boards and police departments over the release of records that were clearly public. This indicates that there isn’t always a widespread understanding of, or concern about, open records and transparency.
Further, who gets to decide what is too much transparency and exactly how do you make that determination? And once you begin pulling back on reforms that protect and support the public’s right to know, where do you stop, where does it end?
Daniel’s dystopian scenario of out-of-control and overzealous open records laws tearing down government and scaring away the best and brightest works as fiction, but it isn’t supported by the facts.
Transparency gone too far? Clearly, that’s not the case.