Transparency and Perception

I have worked in the public sector for 30 years and one thing I learned early in my career was that perception is reality. I’ve often heard colleagues complain about how they don’t control what people think or believe. That statement is partially true at best. We, folks in the public sector, have a great deal of influence over what our constituents think and believe. How? Through our words, but mainly from our actions.

Granted, the deck is often stacked because of the history of people who came before us, those who have contributed to the low trust that people view government in general and politicians specifically. Instead of throwing up our hands and just accepting those views, it should challenge us to work harder to deliver quality service and act responsibly. I work in a values-driven organization where we define our behaviors and hire employees who deliver on those values. We’re not perfect but we don’t push the boundaries of credibility.

I am not politician but I’ve spent my career working around them. I have seen some fine public servants and some that simply get elected to push their own pointed agenda. A buzz phrase of many is openness and transparency. Words without follow through are worse than no words at all. We wonder why the perception of the public is so negative about politics and government yet there are plenty of examples that feed this view. Over the past several years, two related examples underscore why I believe that some politicians just don’t understand the connection between transparency and perception. This is not a political blog but it is about two politicians, one from each of the two major parties.

clinton-emailsThe coverage and debate about Hillary Clinton’s email server is out there, so there’s no need for me to repeat it. Legal or not legal, that’s not my focus. Reports that foreign hackers tried to get into the server only compound what I think was questionable judgment by Ms. Clinton to utilize a personal server for State Department business. I don’t care if this was legal and she protected classified material, she shouldn’t have done it. This isn’t about Benghazi or Bill Clinton or any other subject; it is about deciding to go outside of the government computer network to have control over communication and information. Perhaps Ms. Clinton is not aware, or does not agree, that this information belongs not her but to the government. In a private company this might not even be an issue. What you do on company time or related to company businesbrownbacks is owned by the company.

Governor Sam Brownback is highly critical of Hillary Clinton but he also uses and approves of using personal email accounts to conduct business of the State of Kansas. He shares fiscal and other policy information with subordinates and former staffers, some of whom now represent special interests. Conducting State business on personal email accounts? By doing so, these emails are beyond the open records law and therefore we are not able to have access to conversations and influence.

Now, are these two very different examples? Not in my mind. In both examples there is no transparency; official business is done through channels beyond the oversight and review of the public. Both Clinton and Brownback have said they are proponents of openness and accountability. Really? In both cases, the perception is that the public interest is not being served. Maybe we should just trust them and not worry so much about things done in private. Wrong. I do not consider either of these examples to be small or insignificant. Each is an assault on our freedom and shakes the foundation of our right to know what our elected and appointed officials are doing in the performance of their official duties. Even if what each of them is doing is legal, both are saying that we are not to be trusted and operating in secret is acceptable and prudent.

watergate1I am not a constitutional scholar nor am I a flag waver; we have too many self-appointed experts and self-proclaimed patriots. Perhaps we should all just try to be good citizens and focus on the greater good rather than the “winning at any cost” mentality that comes with politics. Younger generations have no idea of the magnitude of a third rate burglary that led to the downfall of a president and the beginning of massive distrust in government. I do remember Watergate and the lessons we supposedly learned about abuse of power, secrecy, moral flexibility and the distortion of the truth. Forty years is a lifetime but maybe we should go back and reread All the President’s Men. I’d be happy to forward copies to Ms. Clinton and Gov. Brownback.

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