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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Charles M. Arlinghaus: NH can do better than an 'F' in transparency


New Hampshire routinely ranks among the worst states in the country on the transparency and responsiveness of its government. This one blind spot in an otherwise accountable government almost certainly contributes to the bitterness of recent policy confrontations.

In general, the people of New Hampshire have long subscribed to the philosophy that transparency, open meeting laws and public access to government records form the basic cornerstone of holding its government accountable. Our right-to-know law was an early sign of our commitment that the government is an agency of the people and its records and meetings should be readily available to us.

Our legislative Web site is a model of easy access to information, providing bill text summaries and access to any legislator's voting record with a convenient drop-down menu. In some states, watchdog groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars developing this information privately so citizens can know what their elected officials do. Our elected officials provide it readily.

On the other hand, much of our government's information is difficult to find or difficult to access. While the somewhat archaic language of our right-to-know law does provide access to data eventually, our state is only beginning to catch up in the technology to make that access easy.

In any state, there are two aspects of transparency. The first is the nominal strength of a state's freedom-of-information laws -- what areas are covered, what are excepted, what form the data are available in. By this measurement, New Hampshire is something of a middling state.

The Better Government Association, an Illinois-based group originally founded to thwart the growing influence of gangster Al Capone, conducts national studies. By its freedom-of-information ranking, New Hampshire's right-to-know law places us 31st in the country. It's not great, but not horrible.

The Better Government analysts also understand that state governments are a little behind the outside world in transitioning to the computer age when it comes to accessibility. In virtually every state, information is available through a gatekeeper. I am entitled to the government information, but I have to request it and wait for a bit while it is gathered, processed and sent.

In the BGA's responsiveness study -- how quickly the information is accessible, etc. -- New Hampshire received an F. To be fair, slightly more than half the states received an F, so we are not alone.

Most of us who have dealt with state administrators on right-to-know requests would not have guessed at these rankings. The administrators I've dealt with have been responsive and helpful. I think that is generally true. What we discover, however, is that many other states are doing a much better job. Part of the reason is more modern computer systems. The state's transition to a new system will dramatically improve the process.

For example, the Josiah Bartlett Center's effort to put the state's entire detailed transaction register online in a gatekeeper-free database is six months into a right-to-know request despite a strong working relationship between our staff and the state's. If I had to guess, the same data request that takes six months now will probably take days next year, after the new system is running and bugs are sorted out.

One example of why this matters is the current friction between the State Employees' Association and the administration. The SEA has become a huge supporter of placing all the state's financial information in a free and open database because so much of the union's disagreements with management are governed by information disputes.

The most recent issue happened when the union claimed the state has 1,400 part-time employees making $75 per hour. Its source is a summary statement a state department did for the Legislature. The department denied that data in a newspaper column. There's no way to know who's right without independent access to detailed payroll records. A public database would sort this out simply. However, the only option today is to submit an official request to people whose workload is stretched, and wait.

When a list of every detailed exception to the spending freeze was submitted to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, legislators of all stripes eagerly pored over and questioned every check and every dollar. Easily accessible information without gatekeepers would make that kind of activity not an unusual sight, but typical and commonplace.

The current dreadfulness of our budget demands every available tool. We have the culture and soon the technology to at least be one of the states that doesn't get an F.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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