If you want change, demand openness.
That ought to be one of the watchwords for Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards as he tackles the new year’s task of changing the course of Louisiana government.
No less of an authority than Robert M. Gates has good advice for anyone in executive leadership.
Gates had a storied career at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department, as well as a stint as president of Texas A&M University. In a short memoir about getting things done in organizations, “A Passion for Leadership,” he recalls the times he’d be visited — often enough, awakened — by officers bringing “colored canvas bags with strange locks and seals that could only be opened or broken in front of me.”
That’s the kind of super-spy stuff that Edwards will be spared at the state level. But Gates’ insight into the process of government secrecy ought to be instructive for the new administration at the State Capitol.
“What troubled me increasingly with each passing year was the realization that too much was being kept secret because of habit, culture, internal power politics, and a desire to avoid embarrassment or accountability rather than any risk to national security,” Gates writes. “Issues from budgets to bureaucratic turf wars were unnecessarily shrouded in secrecy internally, and the public could — and should — have been told more about how and why we did what we did without compromising sensitive information and operations.”
How and why we did what we did — that is a key phrase, because in the past few years, officialdom in the State Capitol has fought to avoid disclosure of the “deliberations” that go into decisions in the Governor’s Office.
The “deliberative process” exemption to the state’s otherwise strong public records law has been, as the Public Affairs Research Council and others have reported, stretched over many agencies to block public scrutiny of all sorts of information.
Edwards campaigned on a platform of change, including more openness in government. That’s been more prospective so far, as his transition committees have tended to meet privately. When they report to the governor-elect, the “how and the why” of the recommendations they make will be given to residents as the administration sees fit to explain.
That’s why we think Edwards should take a look at Gates’ view that openness and transparency is an aid to government reform.
“I became convinced that excessive secrecy was an obstacle to needed changes inside government organizations,” Gates writes.
He is absolutely right, and it’s easy in the flush of transition times to exaggerate the capacity of a new administration to bend to its will government officials and lawmakers, not to mention independently elected bodies like the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The “how and why” of what Edwards wants as governor has to be part of his appeal for collaboration and support in government, as well as more broadly in his credibility with the people.
Openness is a secret weapon for government reform, because it forces those opposed to the governor’s policy to explain out in the open what their opposition is.
Good guidance for a new governor, we think.