November 21, 2018
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Lack of government transparency hinders work to improve Maine

Andrew Harnik | AP
Andrew Harnik | AP
In this May 16, 2018, file photo, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. EPA emails show Administrator Pruitt's top aides were told to review public records releases under the Freedom of Information Act. The emails from EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson and a top legal counsel lay out a system for Pruitt's political appointees to review any FOIA record releases. A senior House Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, says he A senior House Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, says he's concerned Pruitt is avoiding releasing public records.

Government by the people, for the people is characterized by transparency, accountability, participation and inclusion. In Maine, we have a strong legacy of town halls, relatively high voter participation rates and publicly accessible information and accountability. However, our publicly accessible information for accountability has come under threat in the last few years.

There are several public data systems that are not working. The Maine Department of Education data warehouse, which used to house a trove of education data, is no longer available while a request for proposals has been posted in its place. The department is rolling out a new teacher certification data system that is nearly two years overdue. The Maine Department of Labor unemployment data system is under investigation for leaving many people without benefits throughout the winter because the system wasn’t fully functional. And in November the Maine Office of Information Technology reported that one of their contractors exposed the Social Security numbers of adults involved in the Department of Health and Human Services’ foster care system. These breaches and changes have significant impacts on Maine residents and their daily lives.

A similar thing is happening with the federal government, which is removing information from public views, such as the Environmental Protection Agency removing climate change information and the Agriculture Department removing animal welfare information from its websites.

In Maine, many data resources simply don’t exist. For example, the Government Documents Round Table lists no databases in Maine for housing, planning, missing persons, conservation, natural resources, and energy sources, unclaimed property, land records, military and veterans, and science and technology. In addition, Maine has weak laws for ensuring transparency in government.

As a public scholar, I work with publicly accessible databases like the Maine Department of Education data warehouse. This system used to house the school accountability data from the large scale standardized tests that Maine students have to take. There was tremendous pushback from parents, questioning if their children should even be subjected to taking these tests, but the argument was they were needed for school accountability. Now the results of these expensive tests, intended to hold schools accountable, are much less accessible.

The searchable database that allowed individuals and researchers to search and download data across different years and different districts for comparisons is no longer available. In its place there are individual documents from different years and individual reports minimally required by the federal government through the Maine Assessment Accountability Reporting System.

This is a significant decline in our data system maturity from the previous data warehouse that provided a basic interactive experience to a status quo system of downloading individual pdf files. The ideal goal of quality data systems is to move toward open data systems with real-time data exchange.

Openly accessible data allows for transparency and government accountability by the people as Gov. Paul LePage promoted with the Maine.gov Open Data portal. This portal is glittery on the front page, but quickly loses it shimmer and functionality with most of the reports posted prior to 2010, when LePage was first elected.

A World Bank report on Governance and Anti-Corruption Strategies from 2006 asserted, “[E]ngaged local communities, a vibrant civil society, and a transparent flow of information … help to hold governments accountable for delivering better services, creating jobs, and improving living standards.” In 2015, Maine earned an F rating on access to public information and other systems to deters corruption in state government in a report by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Center for Public Integrity.

Maine residents who want reduction of poverty, better services, jobs and improved living standards must work with our elected officials to create engaged local communities and a vibrant civil society. To do so, we must demand a transparent flow of information so that together we can build a Maine that serves all of our people better.

Flynn Ross is chair of the Teacher Education Department and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. These views are her own as she is not authorized to represent the university or the University of Maine System. She is co-coordinator of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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Correction: An earlier version of this column should have stated a contractor for the Department of Health and Human Services exposed the Social Security numbers of adults involved in the state’s foster care program.


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