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Mark Bennett Opinion

September 15, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Transparency in public decision-making includes sincerely listening to the people

TERRE HAUTE — Transparency isn’t universally accepted in public entities.

If it were, laws mandating transparency would be unnecessary.

Last spring, the Indiana Legislature passed a law forcing the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to disclose the actual number of jobs its initiatives create, the number of jobs expected, tax credits distributed, and investments by firms receiving tax incentives. Despite receiving more than $100 million annually in tax funds, according to the Indiana Economic Digest, the IEDC hid detailed job-creation results from the public.

“The public should be able to expect transparency from private companies when they receive public incentives,” said state Sen. Mike Delph, the Carmel Republican who authored the law.

Transparency.

Its definition seems clear in the case of the IEDC law — make public the tax incentives doled out, and the jobs expected and created, and hold recipients accountable for the jobs and investments promised. The word “transparency” comes up often in debates over various public policies and actions. It happened again this month with the release of a state-ordered review concerning grade changing by former superintendent of public instruction Tony Bennett last fall. Emails obtained by The Associated Press revealed Bennett and Department of Education staffers changed the A-to-F school ratings formula to boost an Indianapolis charter academy — considered a “quality control” benchmark school by Bennett — from a C to an A.

The review, by the bipartisan duo of Bill Sheldrake and John Grew, concluded that Bennett applied the changes fairly, affecting numerous other schools. Their review did not address concerns that the charter, Christel House Academy, received attention because its founder is a prominent donor to Republican campaigns. Sheldrake and Grew did recommend a new, more thoroughly tested ratings system be developed and “based on transparency in all decision-making by the [State Board of Education] and [Indiana Department of Education] throughout the development process and final adoption of the revised rule.”

In this case, what will transparency look like? The concept seems ironic, given that the grade-changing was uncovered through emails obtained by The AP. The Grew-Sheldrake report cited a rushed, flawed and misunderstood delivery of Indiana’s current A-to-F school ratings, and emphasized the need for a new, revised accountability system to be constructed openly, and publicly tested for a year, allowing feedback from schools.

Calls for transparency arise aren’t limited to the IEDC law or the crafting of a better school ratings system. Similar calls are heard from Washington, D.C., to small-town public works boards.

Hoosiers across the state could rightly apply those same expectations to any state and local officeholders and public boards. Do they practice “transparency in all decision-making,” as Sheldrake and Grew put it. Do the officials seek out and truly listen to divergent opinions, not just those of like-minded people? Do they update the public on a proposed project as it progresses?

“What we sometimes get is the appearance of transparency, when the actual policy gets a certain amount of back-room negotiation,” said Anthony Fargo, vice president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government and associate professor at the Indiana University School of Journalism.

Professing support for transparency, open meetings and public-access laws is one thing for an officeholder or public board. Listening and including the public in the decision-making process is another. “You actually have to believe that you are obligated to listen to other people and consider what they’re saying,” Fargo said Friday by telephone from Bloomington.

The word itself is loosely used.

“I’m concerned about the using of ‘transparency’ as a buzzword,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne. “Well, what do you mean by ‘transparency?’”

It goes beyond the positive step of regularly posting public records and meeting minutes online. It may mean releasing budget numbers or spending records an officeholder would rather keep out of the headlines. It may involve scheduling a series of hearings on an issue, in which average people make comments, not just policymakers. Such extensive give-and-take may be wearisome to a lawmaker or board member, but it’s necessary.

“Governing is exhausting, and doing it transparently is probably even more so,” Fargo said. “But doing it that way is the bedrock on which our society is built.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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