Other Opinions

When people can see what government is up too, it gets better

State Auditor Shad White, in office just a few weeks, has begun posting all contracts and requests for proposals that deal with his office.
State Auditor Shad White, in office just a few weeks, has begun posting all contracts and requests for proposals that deal with his office. Sun Herald

When Gov. Phil Bryant appointed me state auditor on July 6, I made a commitment to myself that I would do everything possible to make the auditor’s office the most transparent agency in state government.

That afternoon I met with senior staff and told them this would be a priority, and now we’re unveiling a new portion of our website to make good on that commitment.

Transparency was important to me long before taking office, though. Before becoming state auditor, I worked as Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute. MJI is a watchdog institute representing Mississippians when government officials violate ethics laws or take away constitutional rights.

At MJI, we identified instances where public officials illegally held meetings behind closed doors or refused to make documents public. We won an Open Meetings Act case in one county where private meetings were held to discuss a bond issue.

Another case I started will be resolved in coming weeks. It involved secret discussions about a garbage collection contract. I didn’t stop caring about government transparency when I became part of the government. If anything, my concern for transparency grows stronger.

The reason this is a priority for me is that transparency is a disinfectant. Showing journalists and voters how you do business protects against abuses.

For instance, debating a contract out in the open or publishing the contract publicly makes it less likely that companies seeking the contract will attempt to bribe government decision makers.

Transparency also builds confidence in government. Voters are right to—and even should be — skeptical of their government. That’s a healthy thing. We spend your money — not our money — and you have a right to demand that money be spent properly.

When we show voters how that money is being spent, voters will have more confidence that their money is being used on projects that are necessary (in our case, projects like investigating fraud).

This is why my office is launching a new part of its website this week, www.osa.ms.gov/transparency. On that website, we’re going to publish contracts that we’ve entered into, contracts for which we are a third party, and requests for proposals that we have issued. In the future, if we create other documents that can be published, like memoranda of understanding, we’ll publish those, too. I encourage you to visit the site to see some of our work.

Some of these documents are already published in other places on government websites, but we believe an important part of being transparent is ease of access. A document may be public, but if a voter or journalist can’t easily find it, the document is of no use to them. We created this website to be a convenient, easy-to-use place to see our documents. And we’ll continue to update the site as more contracts are written and more documents are created. In any agency, especially a law enforcement agency like ours, there will always be times when some things should be kept private.

For example, we might enter into an agreement with another law enforcement agency to participate in a joint investigation, and we might be required by law to keep the contents of that agreement secret. In those cases, we have to balance the public’s need to see our operations with the safety of the agents and integrity of the investigation. Another place where our privacy is important is cyber-security.

Any cyber-security expert will tell you that you don’t want to broadcast your technology system’s weaknesses to the hackers of the world. We will always have to balance the need for openness with the ability to do our jobs effectively. Achieving that balance will require some judgment calls from me. My intention is to err on the side of openness, though.

Thank you for this opportunity to serve as your state auditor. I’m excited about Mississippi’s bright future, and I’ll pour every ounce of energy I have into doing my part to make it bright. I’m not going to stop reforming and working to make this office better. Please don’t hesitate to contact me or the auditor’s office if you have any concerns we need to address.

Shad White is Mississippi’s 42nd State Auditor.