Want to know how big and unusual an endeavor a research project like the 4hawaiiansonly site is? As of October 2010, the Federal Register listed 565 Native American tribes as Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal funds flows to those tribes, just as it does to Native Hawaiians, but as you can see in the video below (captured at the 2010 CERA Conference), even the Department of the Interior doesn’t know the scope of the money involved. Watch carefully as George Skibine, Director of the Office of Indian Gaming within the Department of the Interior and Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, confesses that the federal government doesn’t really follow the money, and clearly isn’t interested in doing so:
Government transparency is one of those things that everyone says they support, but not many people give much thought to. But when you think about it, it’s pretty powerful stuff. Without transparency, a necessary check on government is gone. The media does its best, but with limited resources, a need to turn a profit, and other important demands on their time, they aren’t able to be a constant check on the tendency of government to conceal information from the public.
Yes, “conceal.” Some people might find that melodramatic, but you’d be surprised to learn how often government agencies try to avoid even the simplest and most banal disclosures. And when you think about it, there’s a certain logic to that. The public tends to get a little touchy about how their tax dollars are spent, and that’s something that can be worrying to a certain kind of bureaucrat. Rather than discuss why they felt the need to spend hundreds of dollars on catering, they’d rather people just didn’t know about it.
And that’s why it’s important that we support efforts like Grassroot Institute’s newest transparency project: Hawaii Sunshine. The newly launched website highlights all state expenditures and state salaries–it’s a treasure trove of information for any Hawaii citizen who is looking to really learn about where our tax dollars go. Even better, the site encourages people to participate in the fight for greater government transparency by giving people the ability to submit “Pork Alerts” with comments and information on specific expenditures on the site. And a forum lets visitors continue the discussion amongst themselves.
In truth, the Hawaii Sunshine site is a great toy. I just spent 20 minutes searching for different kinds of vendors and seeing how much money was being spent on restaurant meals, dry cleaners, taxi rides, and so on. So check it out, and (if you’re like me) try your best not to shout “I want my money back!” at your computer screen.
Hawaii Reporter currently has a good summary of the effort to pass a law that would allow the Hawaii Department of Health to ignore requests for the President’s birth certificate. (As you can imagine, there have been quite a few requests, and the DOH claims that it has become a waste of staff resources.)
Well, cry me a river.
A word of explanation: I once worked in a government FOIA office–for the Army as it so happened. This was not long after two extremely unpopular Army decisions–the adoption of the Ranger beret for all soldiers and the awarding of the “Army of One” contract. To say that we were besieged by requests for information about both of these things was an understatement. Let’s just say that a large section of America was not at all happy about it and made that very clear as they sought more information about the decision process.
And “vexatious” requesters? Well, I challenge the DOH to beat some of the doozies I encountered. Processing something so simple and straightforward as a request for information about the microchips implanted by the Army in everyone’s brains was an easy day.
But I do have a point here–it didn’t matter what we in the FOIA office thought about the legitimacy of the requests we got. We processed them. Because that is the right thing to do. Because an open and transparent government needs to treat all requests with respect–not just the ones that don’t annoy us. And when we had to deal with the same question over and over and over and over again (like the beret), we did the logical thing–we made everything as open and easily available as possible and then streamlined the response process so that it didn’t use up too many of our resources. (Hint to the DOH–Copy machines. Use them.) Did we gripe in the lunch room? Sure. But we never would have dreamed that someone would ever try to create a legal exception to the principle of transparency just out of annoyance.
As to why this is all important to the Native Hawaiian project–well, it should be obvious. This is not a good precedent to set–especially in a state government that has made a lot of promises about sunshine and openness, but hasn’t always followed through. If the legislature can carve out one exception to transparency policy out of reasons that amount to little more than bureaucratic irritation, then there’s not much to stop them from deciding that there are plenty of other things that they don’t much care to share with the public.
Making transparency a pick-and-choose option in the hands of bureaucrats violates the principle of open government and sets us on a slippery slope.