Generally, good decisions are based on good information. Good information does not guarantee good decisions. But bad information almost always results in bad decisions.
Where citizens play a role in the government decision-making process, such as in a democratic republic, access to accurate and timely information is required for good decision making.
The default rule for any data warehouse by a governmental body is openness. Openness is making candid data accessible. The exceptions to openness should be few and limited to security and personal privacy.
Transparency and openness are essential tenets of democracy. Violating these tenets should be raised to the status of high crime in the United States and should be a disqualifier for holding public office.
On a personal level, we know this. More than any other thing, secrets are the catalyst for divorce and destroy many other categories of relationships. The reason this is so is that the core of a secret is betrayal and very few relationships survive betrayal. As this works on a personal level, it works even more so on a public level.
There are some narrow exceptions to this broad rule. There are times, for example, when national security requires secrecy. It would be foolish to provide the details of a military operation before it deploys. As such, during times of actual war, secrecy is a necessary public service. Even in such circumstances, secrecy should be as narrow as possible and as short as possible. As soon as the public interest is no longer active and immediately served, openness should be the rule.
Data may also be restricted for personal privacy. Where a public actor legitimately collects personal identifiers (such as social security numbers, date of birth, etc.) keeping that data secret is a public trust. Public employees, however, are not private employees. Where it may, for example, be a breach of trust to disclose a private citizen’s earnings information, the earnings of public employees must be disclosed. Persons or entities who receive public funds have limited privacy rights. Data about the salaries of individuals employed publicly are not protected. Medical professionals who receive payments from Medicare, Medicaid, or the Veteran’s Administration are not private.
Executing these disclosures is simple and could be accomplished by federally establishing disclosure requirements and making the failure to disclose a high crime. These two databases could be established and maintained federally to insure openness:
- National Database of Financial Interests for Holders of Public Office and Candidates
(Includes Political Donations)
- National Database of Financial Interest for Public Employees
There is one particular area of concern surrounding openness in the United States that can be achieved with little legislative effort – dark money. Dark money is the funds that are raised for the purpose of influencing elections by nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose the identities of their donors. Eliminate dark money