California could use a concert hall like Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. The signature structure of 21st century Germany features performance space for the philharmonic, a dramatically curved escalator and various public spaces for people to gather and enjoy city views.
But what California needs more than this stunning new piece of architecture is the scandal that built it. Originally planned in 2007 as a 186 million Euro project, with 77 million Euros from taxpayers, the Elbphilharmonie was so dogged by delays and overspending that its price tag approached 1 billion Euros, with taxpayers paying 789 million.
The resulting scandal produced one of the world’s most advanced government transparency laws. And that law, unlike the hall, could be transported to California, where transparency legislation typically produces frustration.
In our state, open records laws often require citizens to bear the burden and expense of requesting documents, fighting for access, and paying for copies. And open meetings laws restrict our government representatives – we dictate when they can meet and talk to each other. These restrictions on citizens and their representatives often produce conflict between the two.
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Hamburg’s transparency law works differently because it empowers both citizens and government officials. The law sets a default of openness by requiring government officials to make their work – contracts, memos, deliberations – viewable on the Internet, almost as soon as they produce it.
I recently visited Hamburg as the guest of journalist Angelika Gardiner and farmer Manfred Brandt, who let me sleep in his barn.
Twenty years ago, Gardiner, Brandt and other citizens began using direct democracy to bring transparency to Hamburg government. In 2011, spurred by Elbphilharmonie’s troubles, citizens’ groups, organized a ballot initiative campaign to create an information register online where the government would publish its documents and citizens could search them, anonymously and free of charge.
The initiative attracted support so quickly that the Hamburg parliament adopted their proposal before a public vote could be held. Today, Hamburg’s online portal offers contracts, reports, plans, grant awards, proposed resolutions, spatial data, permits, even payments and benefits for senior officials.
The law guarantees “immediate” access, which usually means documents are published within a week of their creation. The transparency has not been total. Smaller contracts (those less than 100,000 Euros) aren’t sometimes excluded. An expansive exemption for personal privacy requires redaction of some information that might seem relevant for holding local officials accountable.
But an evaluation of the law, required after five years, concluded that both law and portal are working as intended. Among the most intriguing findings: Hamburg’s government officials, who once worried about transparency’s costs, are now some of its biggest fans, using it to monitor what other Hamburg departments are doing.
In this way, the transparency law has been most effective as a force for efficiency within the government, breaking down bureaucratic silos. The links hand now knows what the recht hand is doing.
That’s the lesson of Hamburg: with ordinary people so busy with their own lives, the best checks on government abuses are city officials themselves. And a law that makes online disclosure automatic should be more effective than California’s current records and meetings laws, which create conflict between public demands for access and government desire for secrecy.
(It also should jumpstart the nascent “open data” movement to share government data sets online).
And it’s not hard to see how a transparency law might improve government responses to crises. In San Diego, officials in different city and county departments failed to communicate effectively for months as a deadly hepatitis epidemic spread, according to the Voice of San Diego.
If officials could have seen their separate work online, it’s possible that an emergency declaration might have come earlier and saved lives.
Of course, such transparency would be opposed by contractors, unions, and the local governments they control. But that’s why we have direct democracy in California. And in Hamburg.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.