A lesson in financial transparency

From the OpEd page of the Austin American-Statesman:

Keener: Capital Metro takes a road less traveled
By Justin Keener, Local Contributor

Capital Metro has proved critics wrong including me by embracing financial transparency. Recently, Austin’s transit agency became a flagship by posting its financial records and transactions on its websites for all taxpayers to see.

It is courageous to be so open to scrutiny, and any agency that decides to follow in Capital Metro’s footsteps must be aware that the road is indeed less traveled. Capital Metro certainly has seen its share of difficulties over the past several years, being widely labeled as secretive and bureaucratic.

But by humbling itself at the feet of the very people who breathe it into life — taxpayers — it sets a standard that all levels of government must strive to follow.

Doing so will lead to many benefits, not the least of which is a public relations boon by which such an agency can say that it is at least accountable to those whom it serves.

The most common objection to transparency efforts is that they cost too much to implement. However, nearly every government agency implementing reforms has done so at far lower cost than expected, with most saving money because of decreased time spent on public information requests, as well as identification of wasteful and inefficient spending. After implementing transparency reforms at the state level, Comptroller Susan Combs was able to trim $10 million in duplicative services and other inefficiencies — just within her own agency.

As Capital Metro board members pointed out at their news conference, they hope new found accountability efforts will hold each individual employee to a fresh standard of fiscal responsibility. The gumption required to make this move is well worth all of the potential benefits. And besides, it is natural to American leadership.

Today, transparency advocates like 
TexasBudgetSource.com advance the front lines of those same efforts. They understand that those who have entered into the “social contract,” as John Locke put it, must ensure that the entity they have created to make laws for them is as they intended. A government that runs afoul of this essential principle runs afoul of the spirit of American government itself.

Freedom is protected when government acts in its best role: that of a protector of individual rights. Because there are so few ways to express the power of the individual, we rely on money and its role as a transaction mechanism to grant our governments the means by which to act. In doing so, we cannot give up the ultimate check on that action: transparency. Should other government agencies wish to follow the wise example set by Capital Metro, the first step is clear: Put your checks online, and let your constituents know where their money is being spent.

Do not be afraid of criticism, as it is essential to sound government. Do not forget that everything you do owes its authority to each individual in your district, county, city or state, and never try to hide your true intention behind an expenditure or program.

Capital Metro’s embrace of financial openness is not a silver bullet that will miraculously resolve the agency’s fundamental and long-standing challenges, but it is an important step toward rebuilding trust with its constituents. In this time, when the public feels more disconnected than ever from its governments, a commitment to transparency becomes essential.

Keener is vice president of policy and communications for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market research institute based in Austin.

10 thoughts on “A lesson in financial transparency

  1. Bob

    Good job!

    Thank you for being responsive on this and other issues. For example, I now see more frequent counting and ticket verification taking place on the red line.

    Do you have a FAQ page of common questions or complaints along with your responses? This would be useful information to riders.

    Also, is there or would it be possible to host a proactive online forum for regular riders to raise or have a voice in developing issues which planners may not have full knowledge? This blog is a start.

    1. Adam

      Thanks for the feedback, Bob. We’re interested in exploring more options for interacting with customers. We did an online budget meeting recently, and we’re planning do do a couple more about the proposed fare changes. It would be great to do this more often on various issues.

  2. ky

    This is all well and good from Justin Kenner, however, Metro still fails to reveal accurate information about the cost of the Red Line.

    As well all know with any financial know-how whatsoever, the key to misleading people about the cost of any large project is simple, spread the cost over an array of categories and departments. So unless you want to get the data from Metro and spend hours and hours researching detailed costs and totaling them the public will never know the true cost of large cost of Metro Rail, or the extravagant costs of consultant projects that were paid out and shelved, or reports shoved into drawers.

    The public information is nice, but partial.

    1. Adam

      I’m sorry you’re displeased with the level of information provided. I know it can be difficult to let go of the past, and it takes time for changes to resonate. All we can ask is that you give the new leadership a chance rather than judging based on history. This isn’t the same organization that it was even just a year ago. The new financial and audit section of the web site exceeds the recommendations of the Sunset review. So I think that’s a good start. But there’s still plenty of work to do.

      1. Adam, the first couple of reports from the ‘new regime’ included per-boarding operating subsidy information for the Red Line. Since I pointed this out in an argument about the express bus cancellations in Leander, this information has been left out of reports posted after that point (Erica has given the information out, but it’s not the same thing at all).

        Same old same old. Hide information that’s inconvenient.

      2. Adam

        That’s a shame if you’ve already given up on the new board. Ultimately it’s up to the board members to determine what information is most useful for them to receive in the monthly report.

      3. Nonsense. That kind of data must be provided monthly to be of any use; and you know **** well you could be posting it publically if you wanted to, regardless of whether or not a board member requested it.

        I’m the public; I’m requesting it. What’s your answer?

      4. Adam

        The most recent MetroRail cost per passenger data I have is: $30.02 (does not include money accrued for a settlement with the previous contractor. If you include that money, it’s $41.86).

        I can ask our finance department for updated numbers, but I’ll leave out the profanity.

      5. Adam, that isn’t the point. I want it posted somewhere more official than this blog (or twitter or email); because it’s an important metric for the public in evaluating whether to support or oppose operations of this facility versus other operations which are being cancelled in its favor.

        There’s no reason to take it out of the official board communications other than the fact that somebody (me, in this case) used it to make a point you didn’t like.

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