Could you imagine signing an agreement for a major purchase such as a house or car without even knowing the price? If you ran a business, would you agree to take on new employees without knowing what you would pay them? The truth is you've probably done these things most of your life without realizing it.
As a taxpayer, you share in the cost for hiring and firing all public employees, negotiating collective bargaining agreements and purchasing new services or public facilities. Over the years, you've likely paid the taxes to cover these costs without knowing what exactly your tax dollars were buying.
How much of your money goes toward the construction of a bridge to nowhere? How much to bail out poorly managed or corrupt private enterprises? How much does your local DMV officer cost you? How much are you paying for the county bureaucrat who brushes aside your concerns and sends you to another office only to be sent back again to the original person later? Is your money really being wasted, or are you getting a good deal?
These questions will likely lead you to the realization that all government employees — whether at the federal, state or local level — ultimately work for you. And being an employer, you have the right to know what you are paying them so that you can make an assessment of their performance and decide whether they are worth your investment of tax dollars or whether your money is better spent elsewhere.
Indeed, broad public knowledge over the specific uses of tax dollars is a central component of what constitutes a free and open society. Armed with accessible information about government expenditures, citizens are able to make informed decisions about spending priorities and hold their elected officials responsible for their performance, good or bad.
On the other hand, opaque government spending practices undermine the principle of democratic accountability and are the breeding ground for corruption. When individuals are unable to monitor how government officials use their money, corrupt politicians are free to hand out patronage to their friends or supporters. Nepotism becomes the standard in hiring practices. Bloated government contracts are awarded to undeserving firms with political connections. The halls of government become crowded with rent-seekers and special interests looking for politicians who will hand them your money.
To many, these stories will sound hauntingly familiar. Such accounts of "crony capitalism" are neither capitalist nor democratic. They rely on the shadowy use of government power to reward the politically connected.
Luckily, it is a disease for which there is an antidote.
In the information age, the technology is now available to cheaply archive and track all government spending practices. Proper use of computer technology could easily allow the taxpaying public to avail itself of the information with which to hold politicians accountable. Open access to this information is the tool that can highlight instances of government corruption and bring an end to systemic abuses of power.
Recognizing this fact, there has been a growing national drive to increase government transparency. While a U.S. senator, Barack Obama bemoaned the fact that government databases used to track spending were "generally incomplete, inaccessible and oftentimes incomprehensible." He and Sen. Tom Coburn worked together to pass the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act creating a website to easily track federal spending.
Despite promises from Governor Jim Gibbons, Nevada state government has been unable, as yet, to create a similar website for those in the Silver State. For the moment, it appears that other investments have taken precedence over democratic accountability.
Nonetheless, the Nevada Policy Research Institute has been proud to host an online portal for government transparency at both the state and local levels in Nevada. Located at TransparentNevada.com, the site was launched one year ago and is the result of hundreds of public-records requests. The site compiles payroll figures from state and local governments into an easily searchable format. Also available are comprehensive annual financial reports from local governments and school districts. The site was recently updated with increased functionality as well as a second year's worth of data.
Resources such as TransparentNevada.com and others like it are turning the tide in favor of transparency and making it more difficult for corrupt officials to hide instances of malfeasance.
Geoffrey Lawrence is a fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. This article originally appeared in the October 2009 edition of the Nevada Business Journal.