Secrecy in Government and Nonprofits Undermines Democracy

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July 24, 2011; Source: TC Daily Planet | Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer, but like many citizens, she’s concerned about transparency in our society–in government and in nonprofits. Her op-ed in the Daily Planet asks, “what’s the big deal about transparency?” She walks readers through some Minneapolis Public Schools contracts, including one with the Urban League for tutoring outreach. The no-bid Urban League contract, worth $103,000, apparently is really a contract for another entity, with the Urban League as the fiscal agent, but the contract doesn’t say that at all.

Obviously, the Urban League contract doesn’t rise to a scandal of major proportions, but Regan suggests that transparency is important for all institutions in order to build trust.

Have the nonprofit sector and government lost Americans’ trust in the wake of the secret money flows into politicized 501(c)(4)s since the Citizens United decision? It’s hard to feel otherwise if you’re watching the ubiquitous political ads surrounding the debt ceiling Kabuki Theater. While there seems to be little appetite in either political party to revive the failed DISCLOSE Act, there is some slight interest emerging now to chip away at secrecy with President Obama’s executive order to require federal contractors to disclose their political donations. It hardly undoes Citizens United, but it re-starts the nation on the path of cutting back on political secrecy.

The need for greater transparency applies also to foundations that are pushing highly politicized agendas. Jeff Henig of Columbia University notes that several education advocacy organizations, notably Michelle Rhee’s anti-union StudentsFirst, don’t reveal their funders. Some, like Educators4Excellence, are among the recipients of the more than $500 million in funding the Gates Foundation is putting out as advocacy funding. While you can go through the Foundation’s 990PFs to figure out which organizations Gates is supporting, you won’t easily find details about the funding on E4E’s webpage.

It’s time for an ethic of disclosure. Attempts to hide the information about funding sources by making it hard to find or impossible to know is doing damage our democracy. Just watch the Congressional debt dynamic if you need evidence.—Rick Cohen (with a great assist from Anne Eigeman).