A 2020 HBO movie entitled Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman, tells the story of Frank Tassone, a real-life superintendent of the Roslyn, New York school district who along with an accomplice, it was discovered in 2004, stole an overall total of $11.2 million in district funds. It’s been called the “largest public school embezzlement in U.S. history.” It should be called the “largest public school embezzlement ever discovered in U.S. history” because there is no way to be sure that a worse theft has not occurred. The theft would never have been discovered had Tassone’s partner in crime, Pamela Gluckin, not had her son buy $83,000 in home remodeling supplies on the school’s credit card. But for alert Home Depot employees, Gluckin and Tassone likely would have gotten away with their theft, carried out over years, to this day.
The movie’s dramatization of a student reporter digging into filed receipts and investigating suspicious (fake) vendors likely reflects the hard work of real-life reporters at the time. The sleuthing portrayed in the movie involved many hours combing through piles of invoices stored in a basement room and then calling (or attempting to call) suspect vendors.
A Vision for Transparency
But what if reporters and amateur sleuths, whether students, parents, or taxpayers, could look at a school district’s transactions, receipts, and invoices after downloading from the internet, without having to file Freedom of Information Act requests, without going to court for access, and without digging through boxes in a basement? Would a Frank Tassone or a Pamela Gluckin steal more than a pittance if they thought somebody could look over their shoulders so easily? Likely not. In fact, a study of transparency requirements associated with the federal Recovery Act points out that “[t]ransparency requirements served as a deterrent which contributed to low rates of fraud, waste, and abuse of funds.”
This has always been the promise of transparency in government. Just the threat that someone might get a good look at a government agency’s financial inner workings would be enough to discourage untoward activities, and not just outright stealing. Let’s admit the obvious; it’s highly likely that for every discovered example of malfeasance, there are many more that remain undiscovered. That’s because a random hunt for fraudulent government transactions by a concerned taxpayer, activist, or think tank analyst, in ideal circumstances, is enough of a “Where’s Waldo?” exercise in itself that the mildest of impediments can be highly discouraging.
Transparency must be routinized and standardized in a way that makes sense and allows a citizen observer/investigator to get to the most important information with as little cost as possible. Thus, the purpose of 1889’s recent paper, A Vision for Transparency, which suggests the most efficient and effective form that transparency in government can take.
When done properly, transparency can lead to greater public trust and support among citizens, according to one 2012 study. Nevertheless, it often seems governments are reticent to give up information even if it only allows waste to be identified. The Oklahoma legislature actually required the state’s education agency to delete readily available spending data because they apparently grew tired of explaining how it was different from federal data. It is hard to imagine anything that could do more to bring about distrust of government.
Although with Governor Stitt’s transparency initiative, the State of Oklahoma is more transparent than many states, much is still left to be done. Local governments are not as transparent as they should be, and the state itself could see improvement, as demonstrated by the legislature’s irresponsible action with school expenditures. The paper explains in depth why all of the information that follows should be made readily available to the public everywhere, at every level of government.
Crucial Information that Every Citizen Should Be Able to Access
Every citizen should have ready access to the following information through a state-maintained website usable free-of-charge:
- A list of every government that presides over that citizen’s address, including enterprise entities such as electric co-ops, and rural water districts,
- Readily available standardized basic information about every single governmental entity in the list of governments,
- Every single payment of funds from each government’s coffers,
- A listing of each government’s assets, updated on a reasonable periodic basis,
- Every single non-tax revenue payment made to each government entity.
The state should maintain a website that provides the information contained in the first bullet above, with links to standardized web-based information described by the other bullets provided by each individual governmental entity, including the state and its agencies, and all local governments. A citizen should be able to access a state-maintained website, type in an address, and obtain a list of all governmental entities that have independent decision-making bodies that govern over that address.
Basic Governance Information
- For states and cities, a list of independent policy-making offices/entities/agencies including governor, legislature, secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, etc. for the state; mayor/city council, zoning board, TIF boards, etc. for cities,
- For every entity:
- Name and contact information of every policy-making official, preferably both e-mail and phone (legally, there should be no exceptions for contact information),
- How each official obtained office – whether elected or appointed; if appointed, by whom,
- When each official first took office and the date of the end of the current term,
- Election dates applicable to the entity over the next two years with special attention for called elections,
- Taxes for which the entity is responsible and current tax rates,
- Links to statutes/rules/ordinances for which the entity is responsible,
- Links to expenditure/asset/revenue information (described below),
- Links to websites maintained by the entity.
Spending: The Government’s Check Register
An investigator (taxpayer, journalist, accountant, or paid researcher) really only needs three basic pieces of information for each transaction. These include:
- Who got paid,
- How much was paid,
- What the expenditure was for (not just object, function, and fund codes, but a memo line, too).
Every government asset above a minimum threshold should be identified, quantified as necessary, and listed with its initial purchase price for perusal by the citizenry.
Government runs a number of self-funded, or nearly self-funded enterprises, including sanitation (garbage) service, water service, sewer service, parks service, hunting license service, occupational licensing (dis)service, hospitals, auto licensing, and the list goes on. Many revenue transactions occur that do not represent taxation. Taxpayers deserve to know they are all be charged and treated equally.
With the traditional press in decline, we all the more urgently must make transparency work as well as possible. We have to be selective about what specific information is to be made available, taking care to make it available in a way that it can actually be read and analyzed effectively. Otherwise, the sheer volume of information, along with useless drivel, can so camouflage waste, fraud, and abuse that it is hidden in plain sight.
Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director: email@example.com.