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  1. #1
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    Default Interesting take on transparency: quick lies versus more complicated truths

    Privacy and intellectual property thinker Lawrence Lessig has a great (and lengthy) essay on government transparency in the October 21, 2009, The New Republic.

    To be sure, Lessig is by no means anti-transparency (nor am I, occasional snipes to the contrary). That said, some of his observations warrant deeper consideration. (For the record, I'm not suggesting that Lessig's article applies to transparency in Wayland with its unpaid volunteer government structure.) A selection of these thoughts follow.

    How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious. But I have increasingly come to worry that there is an error at the core of this unquestioned goodness. We are not thinking critically enough about where and when transparency works, and where and when it may lead to confusion, or to worse. ... The "naked transparency movement," as I will call it here, is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.

    ...

    The problem, however, is that not all data satisfies the simple requirement that they be information that consumers can use, presented in a way they can use it. "More information," as [Archon] Fung and his colleagues put it, "does not always produce markets that are more efficient." Instead, "responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts. Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it.

    ...

    [Refuting false allegations, in this case regarding the propriety or lack thereof of federal campaign contributions made visible by transparency] is the problem of attention-span. To understand something--an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence-- requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required.

    To digress briefly, this observation speaks to what I call the "quick lie/complicated truth" conundrum. John McCain fell victim to this peril in South Carolina in 2000, as captured succinctly by The Nation: "[Karl] Rove invented a uniquely injurious fiction for his operatives to circulate via a phony poll. Voters were asked, 'Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain...if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?' This was no random slur. McCain was at the time campaigning with his dark-skinned daughter, Bridget, adopted from Bangladesh. "

    All the truth-telling in the world wouldn't have resolved McCain's bind--there simply wasn't the attention span to hear it. Back to Lessig's essay ...

    The point ... is not that the public isn’t smart enough to figure out what the truth is. The point is the opposite. The public is too smart to waste its time focusing on matters that are not important for it to understand. The ignorance here is rational, not pathological. It is what we would hope everyone would do, if everyone were rational about how best to deploy their time

    ...

    In the context of public officials, however, the solutions are obvious, and old, and eminently tractable. If the problem with transparency is what might be called its structural insinuations--its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always--then the obvious solution is to eliminate those insinuations and those suggestions. A system of publicly funded elections would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money.


    Upon reconsideration, perhaps Lessig's does apply to Wayland. In essence, money (of the meaningful campaign contribution type) is already structurally removed from the system. As such, transparency won't reveal the appearance of (money-driven) impropriety (not that anyone has argued against Wayland transparency for this reason), and therefore, objections to transparency are harder to come by.

    I'm not at all convinced that I've made my point clearly, or even that I really had a point beyond sharing an interesting and thought-provoking essay. As always, I'm interested in people's reactions, in this case on Lessig's ideas as well as any I've managed to get across.

  2. #2
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    Default Very prolific

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    I'm not at all convinced that I've made my point clearly, or even that I really had a point beyond sharing an interesting and thought-provoking essay.
    Its way over my head Jeff...
    Perhaps you could summarize it in a few concise sentences.

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    Nah, not way over your head, just not clearly laid out by me. Thanks for prompting for a concise summary.

    Basically, Lessig is saying that the "new transparency" (enabled by digital technology) can lead to an *unwarranted* lack of trust that's toxic to democracy, and that the public funding of campaigns is the way to maintain/restore that trust.

    1. Everyone knows that money in politics is corrupting.
    2. Everyone knows that transparency in politics is cleansing.
    3. Therefore, it's desirable to make the money trail transparent.
    4. But wait, there's a problem.
    5. Sometimes, the political action and the money aren't nefariously linked.
    6. It's easy, however, to suggest that they are, creating a stain that may be unwarranted.
    7. It's much harder, unfortunately, to remove the unwarranted stain.
    8. As a result, trust is lost, both in that situation and overall.
    9. That loss of trust is toxic for the democracy.
    10. A solution is to remove the money and fund campaigns publicly.
    11. The negative impact of transparency (the "false stain") is therefore removed.

  4. #4
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    Default Not a problem here in Wayland

    Whether transparency can be carried too far in some instances or not, we do not come close to having too much of it in Wayland, as illustrated here:
    .


    __________________________________________________ ______________

    I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring them the real facts.

    Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865)



    .
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

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    Default

    And I have an unopened ream of paper that's nearly three times the page count of Weston's budget! [grin] Of course, it's the content of the pages that matters. What John curiously omits from his post is any consideration of the content of the two budget documents (also, he fails to include Wayland's 8-page School Budget Book itself in his comparison).

    • For instance, many of Weston's non-personnel pages contain line after line of identically named items. Pages 104 and 105 contain nearly 50 instances of "EQUIPMENT MAINTENANCE."
    • For instance, 25 of Weston's pages are simply section dividers with photos.
    • For instance, 5 of Weston's pages are devoted to capital items; Wayland's school capital items are contained in the ATM Warrant.

    Those interested in seeing exactly what information is contained in the various documents may do so here.

    Does Weston have more detail? It certainly does. Is the difference as large as John makes it out to be? Certainly not. In recent years, the School Committee and the Administration have worked to provide more and more information each year, and that effort will continue.
    Last edited by Jeff Dieffenbach; 10-17-2009 at 09:18 AM. Reason: Fixed error in first bullet

  6. #6
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    Default Defending the indefensible

    Jeff is right that several pages of Weston's book are graphics or intros to the next section.

    However, when one removes those from the comparison, the 128 pages of data that remain still represents 750% more information than Wayland provides in its "detailed" 15 page version of the budget book.

    ---------------------

    The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

    Flannery O'Connor (1925 - 1964)


    .
    John Flaherty

    Any views expressed are NOT mine alone.
    Wayland Transparency - Facts Without Spin
    http://www.waylandtransparency.com/

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    Basically, Lessig is saying that the "new transparency" (enabled by digital technology) can lead to an *unwarranted* lack of trust that's toxic to democracy, and that the public funding of campaigns is the way to maintain/restore that trust.
    Bet you all could guess that I would be for completely “naked” transparency; that I think all governments are failures – incompetent at best, malign at worst; that even here in America government management is worse than the media or our leaders tell us; and I can even be reasonably articulate about why I think so, but there really isn’t time for all that here… Saw a poll the other day, 46% of those polled thought government wasted over 50% of the taxes they paid. 75% thought it wasted over 25%. My hope is that financial transparency would illuminate the waste. Citizens thus informed might demand improvement, might propose and enact solutions.

    "new transparency"… “toxic to democracy” – I understand we elect our government, but it doesn’t function as a democracy. In truth, it functions like a commercial oligarchy. (Would we all agree that this is already more information than is wanted by people so recently returned from a Homecoming party?) As I see it public campaign funding does nothing to solve the problem or get us to a more truthful assessment of the situation.

    Perhaps the present manifestation of government has run it’s course, spent and borrowed more than we can afford (even here in Wayland where our somewhat special circumstances make us a bit more vulnerable) and time now waits for people to see this, decide what they actually think governments should do in a world of limited money, and redesign how government works.

    In another thread, Jeff, you asked the following (I was going to get back to it, and it fits here just fine):

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    … it sounds as if the Finance Committee was doing exactly what you suggested the town isn't doing – namely, supplying financial information. The complete presentation of the Finance Committee to the Board of Selectmen is available "front and center" on the Town's web site here.
    More generally, the budget process is conducted in public each year, resulting in two main financial documents (the Warrant and the School Budget Book) with substantial supporting detail.
    Could you be a bit more specific regarding financial information you're missing?
    Glad you asked

    What I want, and what I think taxpayers are entitled to, is actual financial information. That is, actual income, actual expenses. First, about your “budget process”. It’s just that, a budget. In the Warrant it’s a budget too. That’s “proposed” income and expenses. Now I’m no expert on financial analysis, but I think what usually happens is that companies tract their actual income and expenses, comparing them with the budget during the year to see how the company’s doing. Then at year’s end, give a final report, informing next year’s budget development. I presume that in the school department and town finance department something like that happens, but it doesn’t make it out to the taxpayers. All we get is this year’s “budget” compared to last year’s “budget”. That’s not enough information to know if our monies are being well-spent or not.

    Jeff, you make me smile, you always imply such great things in you criticisms. Like with your back and forth with John above, you imply that Wayland’s documents are just packed full of vital information. Just like you implied with the:

    Quote Originally Posted by Jeff Dieffenbach View Post
    … it sounds as if the Finance Committee was doing exactly what you suggested the town isn't doing--namely, supplying financial information. The complete presentation of the Finance Committee to the Board of Selectmen is available "front and center" on the Town's web site here.
    Of course I went to see, and lo, not so much…

    What I found were PowerPoint slides. And in the case of the new high school project – nine PowerPoint slides. And just like you pointed out for Weston, of our 9 slides, there was a title slide, an intro slide, footnote slide, etc., actually only 3 slides of any substance, and 2 of those told nothing concrete. The one page of “financial information” for the new high school was:

    Summary Project Budget
    (How do you align columns or indent? Neither tabs or word spaces, which worked in the submission window, came through and showed up here?)

    Total Project Costs
    Arch/Engineering & Administration $7,600,000
    Construction Costs $56,440,000
    Furniture, Fixtures & Equipment $2,160,000
    Contingency and Miscellaneous $4,600,000
    Total Project Costs $70,800,000

    MSBA Grant @ 40% of Eligible Costs $(25,000,000)
    Net Costs to be Financed $45,800,000

    That’s it. So much for “comprehensive financial information.” If this was my report to the owner or CEO of the company I work for (after how many years and how many hundreds of thousands of dollars), well, I be fired. And rightly so.

    Even worse, these aren’t even “real”numbers. They’re estimated, made up numbers that have more to do with the MSBA process of reimbursements per square foot per student than with actual costs. As you read in other places, design will take another 8 or so months and only then will the job be sent out for bids and then we’ll know the final cost. (Of course, using the town’s other building projects as a guide, this will mean it will cost more.)

    So here it is

    This taxpayer thinks the town owes the people it takes money from financial information that shows the town is doing it’s part in using the money wisely. That we’re getting value for our money, and that tomorrow we’ll get more value, not less. At the highest level, what I’d like to do is promote the creation of publicly available financial reporting similar to what’s done for companies. Like Assets and Liabilities (when was the last time you saw a figure for the town’s “unfunded pension liabilities”?), Income and Expense, and changes over time to see where the town is headed. I know that town government is different from a company and that not everything would apply, but figuring out how to make such reporting work is the interesting part…

    So Jeff, I’m really more interested in the town in general, but since you’re here, on the school committee, and helpful, I suggest we analyze the actual expenses of the High School building project, up to now and going forward, and see what we find out. I bet it’ll be fascinating (and boring). I’m with you though, I hope we find evidence of cost control mechanisms that ensure our taxpayer’s money is well spent and that we all are getting good value for our dollars.

    So, the new High School project started in what year, with the appropriation/expenditure of how much… ?

    And while you’re at it, would you happen to have an employee organizational hierarchy chart of the entire school department? I’d love to see one.

    What do you say?

    donBustin@verizon.net

  8. #8
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    Default It’s truly amazing, I should never complain.

    There is now an active link on the Town’s home page to the official HSBC web site. Excellent, and there’s even financial information on the HSBC site! Pretty cool, and thank you world.

    Of course, I’m a bum and never satisfied. Looking at the financial report, there seems to be some inaccuracies and it’s often confusing. (“Great spirit”, why must it always be so?) Here’s the link (http://www.waylandschoolcommittee.or...inancials.html). Note at the top in the boxed “Summary of Proposed Project”– in the left hand column, the “Feasibility and Schematic Design Phase” figure, there’s an asterisk. The dollar amounts in the asterisk copy add up to about $300K more than they should. I just hate that!

    Want to have some fun? A little farther down the report, ask the folks at HSBC to itemize how they came up with the figure for “Owner’s Contingency”. It’s in two places, totals about $5M. Might as well lump in with that the Miscellaneous amounts (in two places again, another $1.35M). More than $6M, how specific do you think they can be?

    One more – at the bottom in the History section. There’s a “Note 1” and a “Note 2”. The figure with Note 1 has had the MSBA reimbursement amount removed. The line below it, Note 2, is a figure for MSBA reimbursement. That kind of apples and oranges thing always throws me off. Obviously the reimbursement figure removed above is not the same as the reimbursement number included below, but if they were going to have a reimbursement figure below, why not leave the above figure whole and include the two reimbursements together... enough of that! Yes, they could do the whole thing much simpler.

    They could say, “at this time we believe the school will cost: $70,800,000.
    MSBA will pay: $25,000,00
    Cost to town will be: $45,800,000
    Already appropriated $1,084,812 (or is it the other number from the * footnote?)
    To be appropriated at Nov.’s Meeting: $44,715,188”

    (And of course they might add that “final costs might be a little different, if costs are under, then all the appropriation won’t be spent, if they’re over, then more will have to be appropriated”.)

    Couldn’t they just say that? Do they think we won’t understand?

    If you’ve read this far (bless you) you might notice that their final figure in the Summary Box of $45,149,113 is different from mine. Look at their Summary, the whole thing’s deceptively simple looking, but it’s really confused. Can you make any sense out of it?

    And these folks want to borrow and spend $45M of our money. Oh my.

    Now, can’t boring old numbers be fun? And all we have to do now is move from these “appropriation figures” to tracking actual expenses and I’ll be sooooo happy!

    donBustin@verizon.net

  9. #9
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    Note at the top in the boxed “Summary of Proposed Project”– in the left hand column, the “Feasibility and Schematic Design Phase” figure, there’s an asterisk. The dollar amounts in the asterisk copy add up to about $300K more than they should. I just hate that!
    Don, I believe the difference between the asterisked value and the three numbers it refers to is that one is the amount we've appropriated, and the other the amount actually spent to date.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    Want to have some fun? A little farther down the report, ask the folks at HSBC to itemize how they came up with the figure for “Owner’s Contingency”. It’s in two places, totals about $5M. Might as well lump in with that the Miscellaneous amounts (in two places again, another $1.35M).
    Some of the contingency is for items that are eligible for MSBA-reimbursement, the other contingency is not, which is why they are split out. I learned that one at the HSBC forum I attended.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    One more – at the bottom in the History section. There’s a “Note 1” and a “Note 2”. The figure with Note 1 has had the MSBA reimbursement amount removed. The line below it, Note 2, is a figure for MSBA reimbursement. That kind of apples and oranges thing always throws me off.
    Looks to me like the difference is that one of the lines is money that has already been spent, but which is eligible for 40% reimbursement, and the other which has not been spent.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    Obviously the reimbursement figure removed above is not the same as the reimbursement number included below, but if they were going to have a reimbursement figure below, why not leave the above figure whole and include the two reimbursements together... enough of that! Yes, they could do the whole thing much simpler.
    I agree, it could be simpler.

    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    They could say, “at this time we believe the school will cost: $70,800,000.
    MSBA will pay: $25,000,00
    Cost to town will be: $45,800,000
    Already appropriated $1,084,812 (or is it the other number from the * footnote?)
    To be appropriated at Nov.’s Meeting: $44,715,188”

    (And of course they might add that “final costs might be a little different, if costs are under, then all the appropriation won’t be spent, if they’re over, then more will have to be appropriated”.)

    Couldn’t they just say that? Do they think we won’t understand?
    Yes, I suppose that could just do that (though your numbers do seem to be a little bit of apples and oranges), but then wouldn't there be someone asking for the 150 page detail book?


    Quote Originally Posted by don Bustin View Post
    If you’ve read this far (bless you) you might notice that their final figure in the Summary Box of $45,149,113 is different from mine. Look at their Summary, the whole thing’s deceptively simple looking, but it’s really confused. Can you make any sense out of it?

    And these folks want to borrow and spend $45M of our money. Oh my.

    Now, can’t boring old numbers be fun? And all we have to do now is move from these “appropriation figures” to tracking actual expenses and I’ll be sooooo happy!

    donBustin@verizon.net
    Here's how I understand it: our share of the whole project is $45.8, but we've already appropriated and spent some (and of that some of it is subject to 40% reimbursement), so our remaining amount (to be borrowed) is $45,149,113.

    I think they could make the details a little more readable, but I don't think there's anything wrong in there, and nothing that should make you doubt their competence in borrowing and spending the money.

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