New government transparency site not so clear

By Zack Oakey, Staff Writer

By the late 19th century, the term “tabloid” had adopted a new meaning in the common tongue. Previously it described a small tablet of medicine compressed into small pieces for easy consumption. Its shift in our usage today to sensational journalism is in some way indicative of how the exposure of intimacies of public figures is used: As a drug, dulling the senses and smoothing the complexity of true human reality with a quick look at photoshopped faces.

The prevalence of these sensational publications in every gas station and grocery store across our nation paralleled by common gossip about co-workers, family, friends and others gives the impression that this behavior is powerful and instinctive. What would it look like if the Utah government got into the business of getting into other people’s business? The simple answer is Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert’s newest internet sensation: transparent.utah.gov.

Not unlike “choice,” “life,” “patriotism,” “families,” “sustainability” or “toxic asset relief,” who could ever oppose “transparency” in local governance? After all, our money is funneled to these people and we ought to know what they are doing with it, right?

Take a look at the Web site and ask yourself if you would have spent the nearly $250,000 on the kind of information available. It does give some information such as travel-lodging reimbursements, office-specific salaries and wages as a total, and some other housekeeping bills. But the names of the individuals who made the decisions to use our money are not listed, nor the destinations of their traveling arrangements, nor the state employee payrolls present. What is the point of a database that contains no names and no monetary particulars? Whom do we hold accountable? Some criticisms have already been heard about the nameless, faceless facts given in the site, to which lawmakers have replied that they don’t want to violate privacy laws. Easy enough right? Say you’re for the kind of transparency that is legally opaque.

If you want to see true transparency, look no further than a recent article in City Weekly that gave the common citizen real tools to find out real details. Shane Johnson and Eric Peterson of the paper detail exactly how you and I can find bodies, criminal records, business transaction archives, e-mails, and, most importantly, government documents, including financial records beyond those displayed in the transparency website. Next to these sources, The Salt Lake Tribune, in partnership with Deseret News, In This Week, Utah CEO and others compiled a database, months before the official government-endorsed version, showing more than 180,000 government employees’ compensation listed by name, salary and institution. It even includes U faculty. This is the kind of creativity and ingenuity in which the private sector will always outperform governments.

What this says about Herbert and all of those politicians who supported spending $1.4 million on something that is a near regurgitation and a legal straw man is that if they truly cared for what Herbert calls “unprecedented transparency” they would consult with the people who actually work with these details, the general public. Instead they have paid a private company, Utah Interactive LLC., to make it look as though they have our best interest in mind.

Not surprisingly, those journalists and writers in the blogosphere who stand to gain from our attention have demonstrated that they are the people who have our best interest in mind, not the politician. We who vote these people into office need to hear their words with what nationally syndicated columnist George Will calls a “third ear.” Public suspicion of the motives of public officials is healthy and demonstrates every time, to the point of cliche, how most of our elected officials want their jobs more than they want to uphold great ideals.

This new, high-tech beast is nothing more than an overpriced advertisement, trying to show the voters of 2010 that the current leadership should be kept in power. We need to be the people who propose ideas and our government should be putting those ideas into practice, not the other way around.

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Zack Oakley