By Charles Hill
Michigan Coalition for Open Government
It’s your government. And it’s your money that’s paying for it.
You deserve to know how that money is being spent and whether waste, fraud, corruption, conflicts of interest or just bad decision-making is getting in the way of the results you expect for your money.
Customers every day demand accountability from the people who remodel their houses, serve them food, fix their cars, or sell them a TV or a computer. People demand their money’s worth, especially when money is as tight as it is today.
Citizens should demand the same accountability — and more — of their government.
Are children being educated in a way that helps them succeed in life for their own good and the good of their fellow citizens? Are the accused treated fairly by police and judges? Are people getting the public safety and other services they should be? Are contracts being awarded to those best equipped to provide a good service at a reasonable price or to a company that costs too much and delivers too little but was chosen for improper reasons? Are people who truly need help getting that help?
Journalists work hard to find answers those questions and many more. So do parents. So do people who use and pay for government services.
Some good public servants provide that information readily. But often the search for answers is an uphill battle because other government officials prefer to operate in private so they can do what they want without as much oversight, sometime because they have something to hide, sometimes because they think it’s more efficient or easier to operate in secret. And they have government resources to use against the efforts, while news organizations and citizens face shrinking budgets even as what’s at stake in the fight between government openness and government secrecy grows.
Now, journalists and citizens have a new ally in their fight for open government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. MiCOG is being launched officially this week during Sunshine Week, which is observed each year to promote open government and freedom of information.
The mission of MiCOG is to promote and protect transparency and accountability in the governments at the local, state and federal levels. Its efforts will include creating educational programs and information to help guide citizens interested in open government.
And, importantly, the coalition also can help get funding for lawsuits by citizens and the media who are fighting for more public access and against violations of the state Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meeting Act. The coalition will review requests for help, and can nominate them for funding from the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which has $2 million to help pay for open access lawsuits.
How is Michigan doing when it comes to public access to information?
Think of how hard newspapers and broadcasters had to fight in recent years for information about the misdeeds of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and later of some Wayne County officials. Think about how little is known about who finances some political campaigns. Voters often don’t know where much of that money is coming from when they vote, but those running for office may well be reminded once they are elected.
One measure of how Michigan is doing is the failing grade of F Michigan received in a State Integrity Investigation (www.stateintegrity.org/) done last year by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.
Michigan’s overall ranking was 44th of 50 states (www.stateintegrity.org/michigan). Individual category scores included grades of F for each of these: executive accountability, judicial accountability, state civil service management, state pension fund management, state insurance commissions, political financing, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement agencies, and redistricting. Other scores were a D for public access to information, an A for internal auditing, and B- grades for both state budget processes and procurement.
Michigan can do better, and you can help by joining MiCOG. The non-profit group is open to citizens, journalists, associations and other organizations concerned with open government and freedom of information. Details on MiCOG and how to join are available at http://www.miopengov.org/.
Remember — it’s your government and your money that is paying for it. You deserve to know what your government is doing and you can be a part of making that possible.
Charles Hill is the former Michigan Associated Press Chief of Bureau and sits on the board of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.