Going back to transparency | Ott Observations

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During my years as a management consultant, there was a universal truth we would share with all our clients. 

“When people do not receive information about something important to them, they will always revert to worst-case assumptions.”

We shared this with all clients because every management team at times was guilty of avoiding communication with employees.  The lack of transparency by our elected officials makes these management teams look like amateurs.

The most obvious example of this universal truth at play is the resistance of the Trump administration and some members of Congress to an investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol while Congress was in session certifying an election. 

Every citizen has a right to know what members of their government did or did not do that day or days preceding. In our country, the government is accountable to the people. Today, none of us know for certain whether this was an insurrection or just some people riled up by careless words of their president.  But it is our right to know and complete transparency is absolutely critical to our confidence in our government.

Often, administrations claim “executive privilege” – meaning they don’t have to disclose everything they talk about or act upon. In the case of national defense, for example hiding the identity of a spy or keeping military actions secret, this has some merit as our courts have ruled.  

No such defense exists for a domestic action that very well could’ve been an insurrection. Our Constitution calls for our three branches of government to be a balance and check on each other. It is our best defense against the corruption that unchecked power so easily provokes.

There is a “Fourth Estate” that is also essential to the transparency necessary to hold our government accountable to the people it represents.  It is called “the press,” and freedom of the press was one of the first things protected in the Bill of Rights.

We have now endured years of people denigrating the press as “fake media.”  This accusation doesn’t make distinction between responsible journalism (yes, it still exists) and the tidal wave of opinions, editorials and untruthful claims we’re now subject to via social media, the internet and politicized media outlets.  

How easily we have forgotten that it was responsible journalists who exposed the illegalities in the Nixon administration, the Wall Street corruption that created the Great Recession, or the poor job the Catholic Church was doing with only internal handling of child abuse claims. 

Three hundred-plus million of us don’t have the direct access to hold institutions accountable but the press does. 

Thank God they are still on the watch.

Today, confidence in the objectivity of our Supreme Court is at an all-time low, thanks to a broken and politicized process of confirmation of new justices.  

Earlier this year, Justice Neil Gorsuch made a private speech to the Federalist Society, a conservative think tank and sometimes legal lobbyer. While this is legal, the lack of transparency doesn’t help improve the low confidence that this court can objectively rule vs. politically rule. 

As I explained in a previous column, we all deserve to understand how the court makes its decisions, what it considers, and how it weighs conflicting interests against each other.  

In contrast, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently visited Washington University in St. Louis and everything she said was available to the public and reported on by local journalists. To me, this has to be the norm if we’re going to trust our judicial branch.

The wider spread lack of transparency by our representatives is the avoidance of meeting journalists and answering questions – especially when the topic is controversial. I greatly respect former Attorney General William Barr for agreeing to an extensive interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt. Barr was asked some tough but fair questions and he had the opportunity to give detailed explanations for the decisions he made as the leader of our Justice Department.  I still don’t agree with some of his decisions but I have a higher level of confidence that he approached his job as an objective lawyer rather than a toady for President Trump.

I would support a requirement of all members of Congress to conduct a minimum of one town hall meeting per month, with unfiltered questions from their constituents. I actually would prefer multiple town hall meetings to debates in our next presidential election. Attendees would be required to sign a “civility” contract and would be removed for disruptive behavior.  

I’m tired of debates with slurs and accusations being hurled at each other. Instead, I would like to question my representatives in person, in a format that allows them to provide a detailed answer so I can understand everything that went into their positions and decisions. Sound bites and texts just don’t cut it.

Our leaders in government are not a ruling class. They work for us.  We deserve to know what they’re doing and saying at all times, with just a few rare national defense exceptions.

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