Who among us in Indianapolis has not had the pleasure of meeting one of our city’s Parking Ambassadors? Some of us laugh and sometimes growl about that title. Recently, a friend suggested I write a rant about how wrong the title is and how it is “a perfect example of the total abuse of the English language.” Webster’s defines “ambassador” this way: “An unofficial representative (traveling abroad as ambassadors of goodwill).” These messengers of goodwill are sucking us dry one $20 ticket at a time, without so much as a smile. I actually think they smile a little when the fine magically doubles if not paid in a week. Ambassador is not the “a” word that immediately comes to mind here for many of us.
However, this rant is actually not about that. The suggestion reminded me of another word that I feel is being misused at an alarming rate. That word is “transparency,” in all of its forms, specific to governmental function. A politician or bureaucrat saying “I commit to full transparency” or “our process will be transparent” almost seems like a promise for the exact opposite. Look, no one is more sarcastic than I am. But the overuse of this word in government is starting to make me feel like I need to ramp it up a notch if I want to retain my rank.
One of my responsibilities when I worked for the government was to ensure public access to my agency’s processes. We worked hard it and we were good at it. But we were never “transparent.” The fact of the matter is, people make decisions based on influence that is nearly infinite. The public will never have the ability to truly see, hear, or understand all of the things that helped a policy maker decide the things he or she has decided. We need to quit misusing the word. It’s a spin doctor creation that has worn out its welcome.
The best we can expect from our government is a commitment to some guidelines within its processes that encourage public involvement and governmental disclosure. Any governmental process that is “private” or “confidential” is going to invite public scrutiny and suspicion. As it should. Conducting those processes with incredible sensitivity should be the norm not the exception. A commitment to this is not difficult.
Webster’s defines “transparent” this way: “Fine or sheer enough to be seen through; or, characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices.”
The NFL recently committed to transparency regarding its investigation of the mishandling of the Ray Rice videos. Impossible. The investigation, in and of itself is a charade. How can a process that was created to provide a smokescreen also be transparent? The NFL however, is not our government, even though people have been treating it like it is lately.
A real effort to meet this standard is admirable, but almost impossible. When I worked for the government, our buzzwords and phrases on the topic of access were “open”, “public” and my favorite, “in the sunshine.” In the last decade, as we have apparently raised the bar on access to a level of transparency, the closed door meetings seem to be more secret, more protected, and more obvious as to their role in decision making. I love it when participants in these private sessions are scorned for leaking information from the sanctuary. As if keeping the secret is more important than the result of it. Technology has helped create more opportunities for public participation, but it has not moved us any closer to the fictitious standard of transparency.
National security and personnel issues are the only real justifications for private governmental meetings in my opinion. Political privacy is for political parties, not governmental units, and political parties don’t need to be open to the public. Our government can do better at this stuff, and coming up with a new and improved word to substitute for “public” isn’t what I mean. The appearance of secrecy can be as bad as or worse than the secret. Lesson: quit keeping secrets.
And to the Parking Ambassadors, I actually might like to sit in one of their private staff meetings. After all, I am a pro. I have great suggestions on how to enhance their messages of goodwill.