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We Can Handle the Truth, And We Must: Restoring Transparency and Trust in Our Democracy

We Can Handle the Truth, And We Must: Restoring Transparency and Trust in Our Democracy

By: Monica Plawecki, SMSBF Staff Writer

With the outcome of the 2020 presidential election now decided, many of us have been able to breathe a temporary sigh of relief in an otherwise tense time in our nation’s history. Yet even as voters have chosen a new President to lead our country through the ongoing pandemic, the past few weeks have nevertheless ushered in a flurry of chaos – chaos that’s been in the making for several years.

For months prior to the election, President Trump propagated disinformation about the reliability of the nation’s electoral processes; in particular, he claimed mail-in balloting is wrought with fraud. Since the election, the Trump administration has filed one frivolous lawsuit after another in an ongoing failed string of attempts to invalidate election results. None of these actions – the disinformation campaign and the lawsuits – have any creditability; they have no basis in fact and defy rational thinking. And while the Trump administration will continue to challenge election results, taking up time attempting to undermine long-standing traditions, it’s highly unlikely these actions will prevent President-elect Biden from assuming office as the 46th President on January 20, 2021. Nevertheless, we should be concerned about the dangerous precedent set by the current federal administration, an administration that has repeatedly failed to disclose critical information, denounces long-respected media outlets as “fake news,” and continues to tout disinformation as truth.

So where do we go from here?

While there isn’t an easy path ahead of us, we believe,  — to maintain our democracy and overcome the disinformation campaigns that undermine our faith in our democratic process —  we need to hold our leaders accountable for truthfulness and transparency, and seize this moment as a time to rebuild trust. Just as businesses thrive when trust among employees and transparency is at the forefront, the future of our democracy also relies on trust, transparency, and truth-telling–not fringe conspiracies, QAnon forums, and the self-serving lies of thin-skinned politicians.

The Importance of Honesty and Transparency in Private and Public Sectors

 

In private enterprises, transparency is the “degree to which information flows freely within an organization, among managers and employees, and outward to stakeholders,” which ensures that employees at all levels of an organization have correct and clear information to work efficiently and respond to changing stakeholder needs. (Harvard Business Review) Transparency and communication are essential in everyday business operations, but especially emergency situations, where access to up-to-date information and open exchange between employees can prevent leaders from making mistakes.

 

Leaders who exemplify transparency cultivate trust among subordinates, who are more likely to “put themselves on the line to help their leaders achieve goals.” (Harvard Business Review) What’s more, a company’s commitment to honesty and transparency helps their bottom line by boosting brand reputation and its customer base. It should come as no surprise that customers are more likely to frequent businesses they trust, with one study even suggesting that “94% of consumers would be loyal to a transparent brand.” (Forbes) In short, a “culture of candor” is good for the employees that make up a business’ organizational structure and for the company’s profits. (Harvard Business Review)

Meanwhile, in the public sector, transparent, open governance and trust-building have proven essential for democracy to function. Openness in government helps to “mitigate corruption risks” while promoting efficiency and “ultimately contribute[ing] to public trust.” (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) And rooting out corruption is critical, as it “threatens good governance, leads to the misallocation of resources, harms public and private sector development, and distorts public policy,” ultimately undermining public trust in government. (Institute of Cost and Management Accountants) A 2018 study from international watchdog Transparency International has suggested that countries demonstrating lower levels of public sector corruption tend to be healthier democracies. (AP News)

For an example of what a transparent, trustworthy organization doesn’t look like, we need look no further than our sitting President’s past four years in office. His single term has been marked by cronyism, corruption, and secrecy, evidenced by his blatant disregard for the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, attempts to spread disinformation via Twitter, and refusal to disclose his tax returns, among other things.

In fact, it’s likely the current administration’s failed approach to containing the virus has only hastened America’s erosion of trust in the federal government  and has demonstrated just how harmful opaque government can be when withholding and misconstruing information. President Trump’s refusal to communicate the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, his failure to stress the importance of individual mitigating factors, such as mask-wearing, and his touting of untested virus “cures” like hydroxychloroquine have all undermined public health efforts and resulted in the politicizing of a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. (“A Failure of Political Communication Not a Failure of Bureaucracy”) And while we can never know the exact number of lives that may have been saved had the White House communicated the seriousness of the virus from the very beginning and echoed the advice of public health experts, it’s unmistakable that being more transparent with information and embracing scientific facts would have yielded a more favorable outcome.

Government Skepticism and What We Can Do

How can we rebuild trust when our faith in government is abysmal? Americans across the political spectrum view politicians as untrustworthy, and our lack of trust in the federal government in particular is nothing new, hovering below 30% during the last three presidencies. (Pew Research Center) What’s more, about two-thirds of Americans currently believe the federal government “intentionally withholds important information from the public that it could safely release.” (Pew Research Center) But we also know that Americans are cognizant of their abnormally low trust in government, and perceive it as an issue: 64% of surveyed Americans believe low trust “makes it harder to solve many of the country’s problems.” (Pew Research Center) Further, a majority of Americans are still hopeful that this is a long but temporary phase, believing that our low trust in the federal government can be improved. (Pew Research Center)

There’s not a silver bullet to create public trust, especially given that increases or decreases in our trust in the government often fall along partisan lines. That said, we have to believe that rebuilding starts with demonstrating honesty and transparency. A Biden administration that relays accurate, scientifically-backed information about the COVID-19 pandemic from experts can start to restore our faith in the government’s ability to lead during a public health crisis.

But besides waiting for the removal of one of America’s largest sources of disinformation from the Oval Office, there are other ways we can demand transparency and attempt to rebuild trust in our government, including pressing our Congressional leaders to impose term limits, fighting for greater transparency in the disclosing of campaign finances and “dark” money in politics, and using our votes and voices to hold our leaders accountable, particularly when they’ve spread misleading or false information–just like America did in this election when it awarded our President four million fewer votes than President-elect Biden. We can also continue to utilize our right to peacefully organize to protest injustice and threats to our democracy, especially if the sitting administration continues its pernicious attempts to nullify the election results.

Further, we can help combat the disinformation crisis that undermines our faith in the democratic process by seeking out the truth from reputable sources, cautiously approaching news, particularly pieces that make outlandish claims, and not falling victim to conspiracies. We must also remember that false accusations of “fraud” or rigged elections often make it into news headlines because they make for more interesting stories than the reality of democracy functioning as normal.

Realistically, committing to truth, transparency, and honesty and eliminating the market for disinformation is the best chance our democracy has for survival. We must continue to hold our leaders accountable for honesty and transparent, open government that works together with leading experts and promotes easy access to reputable sources of information. And though the past four years have suggested that the truth can be easily twisted and turned on its head to advance our highest officeholder’s political aims, the future of our democracy deserves–and demands–better. As Representative Adam Schiff suggested at President Trump’s impeachment inquiry: “If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost” –and this may be our last chance to find our way back.

 

Sources:

Harvard Business Review

Forbes

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Institute of Cost and Management Accountants

AP News

The American Review of Public Administration: “A Failure of Political Communication Not a

Failure of Bureaucracy”

Pew Research Center – Americans’ Views of Government

Pew Research Center – Americans’ Struggles with Truth, Accuracy and Accountability

Pew Research Center – Key Findings about Americans’ Declining Trust in Government and

Each Other

Pew Research Center – Americans’ Solutions for Improving Government Trust

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