The Importance of Transparency

The five months it took to obtain the truth about Jakeway's claims made it difficult for policymakers and taxpayers to assess MEGA's real impact. Jakeway's flawed figures received public attention, while a discussion of the problems with those figures received little or none.

Indeed, this delay raises a key concern. If an agency finds that it can release optimistic but dubious claims that cannot be investigated without weeks of FOIA requests and phone calls, the agency will reap false public relations victories that may never be publicly exposed as hollow. In effect, there would be no penalty — and indeed, there would be an incentive — for the agency to make exaggerated claims and then drag its feet in answering information requests from policymakers, reporters and residents attempting to determine the truth.

As noted earlier, persistent delays have become a problem at MEGA. Some sense of the difficulty can be gleaned from the author's correspondence with the MEDC concerning the meaning of the phrase "Jobs to be Created" in MEGA's new spreadsheets. Parts of that correspondence are reproduced in "Appendix A: A Sample of Correspondence With the MEDC."

Concerns over transparency in the MEDC and the MEGA program involve basic tenets of good government meant to enable citizens to examine a program's cost-effectiveness and assess the performance of public servants. Yet there is more at stake: Transparency also helps expose political calculations that may sidetrack an agency and interfere with its mission.

Perhaps one of the most troubling examples of such a dynamic occurred in 2002, when Michigan's economy was weak; state government revenues were falling far short of expectations; and the rest of the nation was beginning an economic recovery. Against this backdrop, the MEDC's priorities seemed skewed. The corporation explicitly stated in a published brochure that its first goal that year was its own survival — specifically, to "ensure the continuity of the MEDC."[132] This goal effectively elevated the retention of MEDC jobs above the retention of taxpayers' jobs.[*]

The possibility that the MEDC might pursue political goals, rather than economic gains, is one reason why good public policy requires that the MEDC become more transparent. Conversely, the MEDC's lack of transparency further heightens concerns that the corporation is increasingly political in its aims.

This political tendency is not necessarily partisan — though as noted above, the political party opposing the governor is often the one protesting questionable numbers and a lack of transparency at the MEDC. More to the point, the political element in the MEDC's actions seems to be ensuring that the corporation continues and that the people running it are perceived as effective.

While this desire is understandable, it should not be, and cannot be, the point of an economic development program. If it were, taxpayers would be serving the MEDC — not the other way around. Instead, the point of the program should be actual economic success. This goal requires a fundamental commitment within the organization to a regular, probing review of its own performance and to a transparency that provides the public the same opportunity — even if this transparency exposes failure.

[*] This grim outlook stood in stark contrast to the MEDC's optimistic beginnings and its mission of keeping "good jobs in Michigan and attracting more of them." See, for instance, MEDC Board Vice President Beth Chappell's comments to the Michigan Information & Research Service's MIRS Capitol Capsule, recounted in this study under "What Is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation?"  

[132] Rick Haglund, "Will Agency Survive under New Governor?," The Grand Rapids Press, November 7, 2001.