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Beyond transparency, we need accountability

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

Over more than three decades in Congress, I had the chance to question a lot of federal officials. Most of the time I wasn’t after anything dramatic; I just wanted to understand who was responsible for certain decisions. How often did I get a straight answer? Almost never.

It was easily one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to ensure robust oversight of the government. Our representatives’ job, after all, is to help make government work better. And you can’t do that if you don’t know whom to hold accountable for important decisions.

Accountability is essential to good governance. I’m not just talking about transparency—that is, citizens’ ability to know what’s being done in our name. That’s important, but equally important is holding accountable those who made the decision to do it: ensuring that they are accountable to policy-makers, adhere to their obligations, follow the law, and that their actions are appropriate and responsive to the needs of the country.

This is elusive. Accountability requires that officials step up and take responsibility for their decisions, and not try to shift that responsibility to others or to some ill-defined group. It requires unambiguous performance standards, clear codes of ethics, timely reporting, and acceptance of responsibility, especially with regard to budget or spending decisions.

So how do we get there?

Without clarity on who’s in charge of what and who’s responsible for which decisions, it becomes too easy for officials to remain unanswerable for their actions. Yet clear lines of authority mean nothing unless the deciding officials are identified and measured against what actually takes place. Officials need to give a full account of what they do and the decisions they make.

As a nation, we face a growing issue on this front when it comes to federal contractors—that is, the private workforce doing jobs for federal agencies. There are very few mechanisms for holding contractors responsible for their errors, abuses and missteps.

Accountability also requires a robust media to tell us what’s going on in the entire system: within the bureaucracy, in the behavior of contractors, and among legislators who ought to be overseeing both but often don’t.

Accountability is key to good government. All I wanted to know in those congressional hearings was who made the decision about the public’s business. Is that too much to ask?

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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What is FICA?

By Stephanie Holland, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

Receiving your first paycheck is an empowering milestone. Do you remember being a little shocked by the taxes that Uncle Sam takes out of each paycheck? Understanding how important your contribution is takes some of the sting away because your taxes are helping millions of Americans—and financially securing your today and tomorrow.

By law, employers must withhold Social Security taxes from workers’ paychecks. While usually referred to as “Social Security taxes” on an employee’s pay statement, sometimes the deduction is labeled as “FICA.” This stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act, a reference to the original Social Security Act. In some cases, you will see “OASDI,” which stands for Old Age Survivors Disability Insurance, the official name for the Social Security Insurance program.

The taxes you pay now mean a lifetime of protection—for retirement in old age or in the event of disability. And when you die, your family (or future family) may be able to receive survivors benefits based on your work as well.

Right now you probably have family members—grandparents, for example—who already are enjoying Social Security benefits that your Social Security taxes help provide. Social Security is solvent now and will be through 2033. At that point, we’ll be able to fund retirement benefits at 75 percent unless changes are made to the law. In the past, Social Security has evolved to meet the needs of a changing population—and you can count on Social security in the future.

Don’t carry your Social Security card around with you. It’s an important document you should safeguard and protect. If it’s lost or stolen, it could fall into the hands of an identity thief.

Check out our webinar, “Social Security 101: What’s in it for me?” The webinar explains what you need to know about Social Security. You can find it at http://go.usa.gov/cdNeY.

You can also learn more at www.socialsecurity.gov.

Stephanie Holland is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan. You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 455 Bond St Benton Harbor MI 49022 or via email at stephanie.holland@ssa.gov

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There’s too much secrecy in government

By Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

We have a secrecy problem. This may seem odd to say during an era in which the most intimate details of individuals’ lives are on display. Yet government is moving behind closed doors, and this is definitely the wrong direction.

In fact, I’m dismayed by how often public officials fight not to do the public’s business in public. And I’m not just talking about the federal government.

City and town councils regularly go into executive session to discuss “personnel issues” that might or might not truly need to be carried on outside public view. And let’s not even talk about what can go on behind closed doors when it comes to contracting.

At the state level, lawmakers exempt themselves from public records laws, underfund public watchdogs, and exempt lobbying expenditures from sunshine laws. “While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions,” the Center for Public Integrity reported last year. “In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws.”

In case you’re wondering whether this has an impact on real people’s lives, it’s worth remembering that thousands of emails released in the wake of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis revealed “what appears to be an active effort by state employees to avoid disclosure of public records under [freedom of information laws],” according to Governing magazine.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of efforts to keep the public from learning all sorts of details about how the federal government conducts business.

Campaign contributors increasingly manage to avoid disclosure of their political activities. Government contractors are not subject to most of the transparency rules that affect federal agencies—even as more and more business is being done through contractors.

The 72 federal inspectors general who are appointed to ensure the efficiency and accountability of the agencies they oversee face constant efforts to limit their access to records. Routine information is classified and kept secret; members of Congress joke that what they’ve just read in a top-secret document was taken from the front page of the New York Times. Yet they themselves increasingly rely on omnibus spending bills — which are put together behind closed doors by a handful of leaders and congressional staff with no public scrutiny.

Most notably, of course, secrecy extends to national security issues. There are some government secrets that are necessary to protect, and a balance has to be struck between protecting national security and openness. But the presumption should be in favor of openness. Those who favor secrecy should make their case in public and not rely on the old adage, “Trust me.”

Take the question of the U.S. drone program. The overall program may be necessary, and technical means, operational details, intelligence methods are all rightfully classified. But that should not be an excuse for hiding information from the American people about what we’re doing with drones. Do we want our resources spent on targeted killing programs? Who determines who gets killed? What’s the evidence on which we base who gets killed? How many innocent people have been killed? The American people have a right to know what’s going on. But we’re being kept in the dark.

Openness is not a panacea, but it makes good government more likely. Representative democracy depends on our ability to know what’s being done in our name. We cannot exercise the discriminating judgment required of citizens about politics, policies and politicians if we do not know what they’re doing. Nor is it possible to maintain the checks and balances required under our Constitution without openness and transparency. We have to shine a bright light on the actions of public officials so that it’s more likely they’ll act with integrity. Justice Louis Brandeis gave perhaps the most famous formulation of this requirement in his 1913 statement, “[S]unlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

But Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals put an exclamation point on the idea in a 2002 ruling that the government could not carry out secret deportation hearings without proving the need for secrecy. “Democracies,” he wrote, “die behind closed doors.”

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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Board of education works for the community

I am a past member of the Cedar Springs Board of Education (BOE) serving for 12 years as a trustee, VP and President.

When elected to the BOE, we had just experienced some very difficult times in the district, including a split BOE with a fractured agenda, a failed BOE recall election, major budget issues and a teacher strike. We began to heal with a devoted BOE and Superintendent whose first concern was the students and the quality of their education. Over time mutual trust was restored and we moved the district forward, including the construction of new buildings to accommodate our growing enrollment. None of this would have been possible without the support and cooperation of the entire community and staff. Our school district was respected in the community as a place where people wanted to raise their kids. It is heartbreaking to me and many of those who did the hard work, to watch the effects of a divisive climate in our community, and to know ultimately the ones who will suffer will be the students.

Comments by the board president like, “we only have one employee,” are shocking! Who is the employer of all the other employees? The Superintendent is only one of the many employees the BOE is responsible for. Comments like this do nothing to build trust and community.

When high paid consultants present at a BOE meeting, no one asks a question? No discussion? Shouldn’t our district employees be able to prepare reports/presentations like the “Budget Projections” presented at the March 14th BOE meeting?

Why do three District Office Administrators live outside of the Cedar Springs school district? What a message that sends to the very people who pay taxes and their salaries! While we may not be able to require that the Superintendent live in the district, it is the right thing to do. Our administrators who live in other school districts pay taxes that benefit the school where they live not the district that pays their salary.

I understand that the BOE has been told, in a statement, not to talk to community and staff. They should be reminded that the BOE actually works for the community! When there is avoidance, people will think you have something to hide. Please do not let anyone silence you! Please have open discussion at the BOE table—yes, in open meetings. Ask questions, ask the hard questions—show leadership to the people who elected you!

Jan Wallace, Solon Township

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Don’t get down on teachers

Thank you for your paper. I enjoy it. I’m sorry to hear you’re all having problems with staff at school.

You know I would have stayed in school if it was not for rumors about me. I feel students are harder to teach now days because some people do not get after their children enough. One of the reasons I left Cedar Springs is people coming up to our trailer in Cedar Springs Mobile Estates. They threatened my life and my children’s. Then they used the C.B. radio to say terrible things.

There is something definitely going on in Cedar Springs. I hope our teachers and school staff does not have problems that they have to be ashamed about. Our schools there in Cedar Springs had good teachers when I went there. I wished I would have stayed in just for them working so hard trying to help me.

Just remember some kids are mean and say things that hurt sometimes.

I wish you would not get down too hard on our teachers. They have a hard enough time with students.

I hope in some way I can help because I love Cedar Springs but just cannot live there.

Darlene Kay Rhineberger Fuller, Big Rapids

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A House divided against itself will not stand

Due to recent events in our school district, many friends now stand divided. Our family relied on many of these past administrators, teachers, and community members as we faced a horrific event that almost took my life. They rallied beside me and my family as I recovered from a massive stroke. Prayers went up on my behalf, a refrigerator full of food was delivered to our home, gift cards filled our mailbox, our driveway was plowed, our laundry was done, and volunteers took me back and forth to therapy. Even my children’s teachers stayed after school to offer an encouraging word or a shoulder to cry on. The list goes on and on. I couldn’t even begin to thank everyone for their support! The Cedar Springs School and community were there for me and my family. They did this because they cared.
Years later, there are new people that have moved into our community. Some of them have had to face unbelievable heartache and circumstances much greater than mine. They have experienced a new set of administrators and teachers that have shown their family the same remarkable love and support that we were shown.
Being a school employee, my heart is torn. Why are there so many harsh words being said towards our school board, a group of volunteers that is working for our school district and our Superintendent? Hearing of their credentials, the school board has hired some highly qualified individuals. Recently, they have completed a Strategic Plan to offer a new vision and mission. I was excited to be on that committee and am looking forward to what the final decision will be. I have not experienced the hostile environment people are talking about.
Are we going to be a community divided or united? We can’t expect the students we work with to get along with each other and show respect if we don’t show respect toward one another ourselves. How about that Habit Of Mind that says “Be thoughtful and considerate of others” that we teach our students? It’s okay to disagree. My concern is the manner in which we are modeling our disagreements to the students we work with. Let’s be a school and community that’s united in a common cause greater than ourselves; the well-being of our students!

Shelley Bauer, Parent As Teachers/New Beginnings Alternative Ed.

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What are you?

I would like to begin by saying thank you to each board member for your willingness to be on the board. It is often a thankless job that requires much of your energy and time. With that said, I ask the Board of Education, “What are you?”

During the Public Comments portion of the Board of Education meeting held on March 14, 2016, Lee Mora asked the board in his comments why Autumn Matteson had not been granted an exit interview. After he finished, board president Patricia Eary made a comment that the board did not grant the exit interview because “they had been advised by the board’s attorney to not grant the interview.” Patricia Eary then went on to say that the board did not give exit interviews to people who were not their employee. Patricia Eary ended her comment by saying, “The only employee of the Board is the superintendent.”

If that is true, then why do all the contracts begin with a line such as “The Board of Education of

Cedar Springs Public Schools and _____ enter . . .?” In other words, the Board of Education is the employer.

In the same meeting on March 14, when the school’s attorney was discussing moving some of the debt from one area to another to gain a better interest rate, a question was asked at the end of his presentation by Patricia Eary wondering what the Board needed to do to move in that direction. Dr. Van Duyn made a comment that “I already signed.” This amazed me! Not one board member questioned the fact that Dr. Van Duyn was making financial decisions for the

district. Although I agree 100 percent that the district needed to change the funding, I am appalled that the Board would so easily let others make decisions and fulfill their responsibilities for them.

So I ask the question again, “What are you?” Are you the board member that swore an oath to fulfill all the duties and responsibilities of the office? Think long and hard before answering as your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a thing you say.

Bruce Marvel, Nelson Township

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Community encouragement

In a world of terrorist attacks, diseases, life threatening illnesses, devastating earthquakes and tornados….what if every day WE EACH strive to become a better person.  Having had a student in CSPS since kindergarten, students have been taught Habits of the Mind and Be Nice. On April 14, high schoolers will be taught about OK2SAY, a comprehensive communication system that empowers students, parents, school personnel, community mental health services  programs, and law enforcement officials to share and respond to student safety and school violence threats. I pray that our community will soon move forward with each of us focusing on being the best person we can be and think about the type of influence we are being.  I am proud to be a part of CSPS as an employee, parent and community member. I believe there are great things happening in our district and am blessed to be a part of it. 

Kathy Sue Corwin, Solon Township, Proud to be a Red Hawk

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What is communication?

Communication is a two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, where participants exchange information, news, ideas and feelings. Communication is a means of connecting people or places. It is the backbone of any high-performing team. Trust is linked to transparency and two-way communication. This has dissipated from our district and community.

We all have passion and dreams for our children and their education. People want their concerns and opinions heard and respected, not ignored. We expect that our Board of Education and our Superintendent are going to listen, be objective, be curious, act, and adjust when needed. How we provide the foundation for our children’s education is critical and that is where the debate begins.

As a district we have been through ups and downs. Think back to the various millages (bond, operational, renewals, and sinking funds) needed over the years. Difficult times made us stronger. For the last 10 years, we have built our reputation to be leaders in education in West Michigan in progressive strategies for children’s learning. People were benchmarking us. Now they ask “What is going on up there in Cedar Springs?” and “How have you lost your way?” We need to get back to what is important, our children’s education. We achieve that through respect, teamwork, communication and trust. Vision can change, and if communicated clearly, people can understand and align.

We need to understand where we have been to understand where we need to go. This district was stellar and we were proud to be a part of it. Today we are lost, more focused on gossip, rumors, and attacking individuals rather than on what is best for our children. Our leaders need to lead; you need to choose to move this district forward in a way that respects the value of those that are here and move together into the future.

Board Members , we need you to step up, be brave, and courageous. Please seek out all the facts and documentation from all possible resources. Discussing all the information brought before you—the good and bad—must occur in order for our district to move forward. Hold each other accountable and make the tough choices and decisions that protect a quality education for our children. Each of our board members has an equal voice.

Tammie Drake, Cedar Springs School District

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Before you reject the system, understand it

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

If there’s a theme that sets this political season apart, it’s the voters’ utter disdain for most of the people who practice politics. They’re fed up with politicians, they’ve lost faith and confidence in the political elite, and they don’t believe that the realm where politicians ply their craft—government—works.

There are many legitimate reasons for these people to be turned off by the way politics has been practiced and to be discouraged by the way the political system appears to work. But I’d argue that if you’re hell-bent on shaking up the system, you also need to understand it—and understand that certain features are likely to persist no matter how hard you try to change them.

The first is that it is very hard to make our representative democracy work. We make progress incrementally, over years if not generations. So you have to approach politics with great patience. Our system discourages the rush to judgment; it puts a premium on including as many voices as possible, which takes time in a complicated country.

Many people are also turned off by what lies at the center of our system: deal-making. This involves a clash of ideas in the public arena, compromise, and negotiation, which make many Americans uneasy. Yet, it’s how we resolve our differences, and has been since the first day of the United States’ existence.

So politicians who insist on purity impede solutions. There ought to be a healthy tension between idealism and realism, but we have to find a pragmatic way to combine them. This makes it challenging to come to an agreement on complicated issues, but it’s necessary to keep the country from coming apart.

We cannot look to government to solve all our problems. Indeed, we live in an era in which government faces more and more problems it cannot effectively deal with. Increasingly, citizens have to step forward and fill the void that government leaves. We may well be moving into the century of the citizen. Our communities and lives are better because of citizen action. Indeed, unless citizens boost their involvement and contributions, many of our problems will not be solved.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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