Which Party Will Grab the Mantle of Transparency?

Let's face it. Both parties need new ideas.

Take the Republicans. For years, the Grand Old Party has argued that government should be run more 'like a business' to increase government program efficiencies and to end waste, fraud and corruption. Politicians for national, state and local officials repeat the mantra 'we need business ideas' to make government work better and to ensure taxpayer dollars are not being wasted. But, ask yourself, what kind of business processes have they adapted to government and what results have occurred? Not too many. The problem is that too many GOP activists and officials are still reminding people of the glories of America during the Reagan years and are not realistically looking for contemporary solutions. Only a few in the Republican leadership, including especially former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, are thoughtfully attempting to insert new solutions into Republican thinking.

Of course, Democrats are not doing much better. And the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is an egregious example of this lack of new ideas. At its core, it's a program that uses government to bypass basic economic realities to bring health care to millions. But because government does not have incentives to get results or ensure that programs really work, everything from the complexity of the law, the website, the interaction between federal and local healthcare exchanges, and the skyrocketing costs (with more expensive policies and less health benefits for many) is now an albatross. Yes, some Democrats like former New York Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker have raised issues to bring sanity and performance to government. California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom has spent real time talking and writing about future ideas to deliver on the historical democratic ideal of using government to solve problems at a reasonable cost.

Of course, the losers for the lack of forward-looking ideas are the American people. They put their confidence in government to solve problems at reasonable costs and help improve the quality of their lives. But neither is occurring. Instead our citizens see politicians of both parties finger pointing, shouting, name-calling, and constantly election campaigning so each party can marginally improve their respective electoral position to gain and use more power. The media coverage of politics exaggerates this lack of forward ideas because "food fights" sell, and media elites on both sides want to help their favorite party in the never-ending campaign election cycle.

The good news is that the political party that grabs the mantle of true transparency will not only break the current partisan gridlock but also enable the performance results in government programs America wants and needs.

"Transparency" has been talked about in recent years but has yet to take hold. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has lead state efforts with its "open checkbook" initiative and now forty-five states list rudimentary expenses on state websites. I say rudimentary because an examination of transparency sites reveals that some states stripped important aspects of data out of the published materials (like the dates of transactions occurring), others allow only outdated information on state websites, and still others only provide endless lists of transactions which provide no context and are overwhelming for anyone to understand. California Governor Jerry Brown has been even brash enough to take down the state's transparency website and still boldly claim a strong commitment to transparency.

The great news is that technologists who understand that you must look beyond just the financials to accurately measure performance now have tools available to them to create solutions to do just that. You could think of these types of solutions as being similar to analytical management displays that private industry has used to propel themselves forward over the last two decades. Unfortunately, the nature of what government does and the way that it does it is so different than private industry means that tools designed for private industry cannot be deployed in government.

With true transparency, citizens could inquire on any subject, program or initiative undertaken by government and, literally within seconds, on their smartphone, laptop, or desktop view real-time status or results. And, over time, with each successive level of government becoming a part of this architecture, legitimate comparison will be made on the correct investment of resources and the results being delivered (something that currently is awkwardly measured, if at all).

On another level, smart leaders will be able to utilize this data to make significantly better judgments about program effectiveness and have "the facts" to withstand the onslaught of special interest 'spin' on their own pet program(s)a.

On still another level, besides seeing and knowing the results of where citizens' tax dollars are being invested, it will be harder for individuals to misappropriate or commit fraud from the millions of government programs around the country. Adding the idea of individual accountability to transparency (and using technology to ensure accountability in government) will drive waste, abuse and fraud down close to zero.

Republican Newt Gingrich in his new book Breakout writes that "new technologies have the potential not just to expose bad government but improve it as well... Our government and our policies are trapped in the past. But there are hints of the future we could achieve using technology to empower citizens to reclaim the functions of government from the bureaucratic state."

Democrat Gavin Newsom in Citizenville writes, "Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge -- of 1973. In the private sector and in our personal lives, absolutely everything has changed over the last decade. In government very little has. For the first time in history, anyone with a smartphone can have all the world's information literally in the palm of his or her hand. People have embraced that blessing with passion, desire, and innovation, creating apps, games, tools, and web sites to improve their daily lives."

The big question is then "which party will move forward with transparency?" Only time will tell. Frankly, it will take courageous leaders to say, "We will be transparent and accountable" and mean it beyond just issuing a news release.

It's only a matter of time before this issue takes center stage in American political life.