Editor’s Note: The following column was submitted by Nerve Citizen Reporter Katrina Fay of Hickory Tavern.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s recent executive order establishing the S.C. Commission on Ethics Reform isn’t likely to improve South Carolina’s rating as one of the most corrupt states in the country in the Center for Public Integrity’s review. The commission’s stated objectives to “comprehensively review, update and strengthen state ethics and open records laws” don’t address the root cause of South Carolina’s corruption.
Government culture of disrespect for the substantive intent embodied in laws already on the books fosters unethical, obstructive conduct where government operates: in the trenches, to SOPs (standard operating procedures), agency directives, memos and other business documents. The state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) clearly iterates in plain English the intent of keeping citizens informed of public officials’ public activities. The commission’s work won’t infuse government culture with respect for this intent. It certainly won’t make a public official or agency’s operational activities more “transparent.”
Government culture is established and promulgated into operational direction – SOPs and the like – by leadership and modeling of the head honcho.
The wide disparity in state agency responses to FOIA requests reported in a recent article of The Nerve demonstrates a notable lack of leadership in state operations. Non-standardized, reactive responses denote a haphazard, undisciplined approach to records management. Today’s technology makes electronic storage and management, with automated public access of non-confidential documents, a cost effective no-brainer. An effective records- management program could convert vague promises of “transparency” into quantifiable metrics. It could also reduce agency obstructions to public access.
Agencies could load all of their SOPs and manuals on their websites. The state departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services are good examples. All other work documents and correspondence that isn’t confidential can be easily organized and made publicly accessible for free. SOPs could mandate scanning of all documents that still use manual signatures as routine.
Taxpayers fund an entire state agency, the Department of Archives and History, to “work in partnership with state agency and local government officials in the proper management of their records,” according to the Public Records Act. It does a commendable job in meeting this objective, with one exception. As is the norm for all state agencies, routine management of public records doesn’t include operational support for the substantive intent of FOIA.
Charging copy and handling fees to make paper copies of documents that agencies should already have in electronic format can’t be considered anything but obstructive to the FOIA’s intent. Transferring the cost of an agency’s failure to implement a records-management program that supports FOIA onto the public is blatantly shortsighted and decidedly lacking in leadership.
As a former career technical professional, this writer understands that government claims of cost barriers to a records-management program that supports, rather than obstructs, substantive intent of existing laws, are, frankly, ridiculously unschooled. Taxpayer money is being spent funding commission lawyers and consultants to revise laws instead of on something meaningful to operations – like standardized records-management programs and corresponding SOPs.
The lack of public attendance at the commission’s recent public hearing in November says it all. The idea that revising technical content of laws can make a hill of beans bit of difference in state operations when the substantive intent of the laws is already on the books is pure political puffery. Garnering positive press for election at the federal level for establishing a commission is a political goal that has nothing to do with real operations. Commission consultants and lawyers aren’t part of state operations, no matter how lovely the press releases read. Operational plans have quantifiable goals, schedules and dates. S.C. Attorney General Wilson, a member of the commission, has never published any; and there’s no sign he plans to do so anytime soon.
The formation of the commission might serve a state politician’s objectives of meeting a political party’s requirements to move into federal politics. Spending taxpayer dollars on the commission, instead of on meaningful state operations, is, in itself, a prima-facie example of why South Carolina is so corrupt.