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Erin Murphy

The state ombudsman, who receives and investigates Iowans’ complaints about government, has seen the office’s workload increase for five consecutive years.

Because of that, Kristie Hirschman has some ideas about transparency in government, and they sound more than reasonable.

Hirschman recently filed the office’s annual report, in which she noted that in 2018 complaints rose for a fifth consecutive year, by 5.7 percent. The office has seen a 29 percent increase in complaints over the past five years.

With that increased workload, Hirschman said the ombudsman’s office has been forced to find efficiencies.

But she also had some suggestions for state and local government officials who could not only make her job easier, but in doing so create more trust with the public.

In the "Ombudsman’s Message" that accompanied the annual report, Hirschman laid out her wish list, which included calls for more transparency, less resistance and a focus on government officials’ duties as public servants.

"I wish government agencies would be more transparent and explain their decisions to citizens," Hirschman wrote.

Here, Hirschman takes to task the Iowa Public Information Board – the very agency created in 2012 to ensure open and accountable government in Iowa – for what she determined were multiple violations of the state’s open meetings law, and multiple state professional licensing boards for withholding records from an investigation.

"I simply do not understand why some government agencies consciously choose the path of resistance if they have nothing to hide," Hirschman wrote. "It is natural for my staff – and the citizens who are interested in our work – to assume a complaint has merit when a government official refuses to provide us with documents or answer our questions."

Hirschman wrote that she feels some government leaders have lost sight of their role as public servants and have become too protective of the government board or agency for which they work or represent.

She also wrote that she is concerned government partnerships with private industries weakens accountability because private businesses are not held to the same standards of openness as government institutions.

The most glaring example of this would be Iowa’s partnership with private health care companies that manage the state’s $5 billion Medicaid program. That system has been rife with complaints since its implementation in 2016. Even though it is not the primary source of Medicaid complaints and appeals, the ombudsman’s office handled nearly 300 in 2018, according to Hirschman.

But Hirschman is careful to note she is not opposed to public-private partnerships; she merely notes such partnerships typically come at a cost to transparency.

"I am not necessarily against privatization. There can be benefits such as cost savings that must be considered by government agencies and policymakers," Hirschman wrote. "It is important, though, for those officials to recognize that privatization has its downside when it comes to reviewing and correcting missteps in the interest of stakeholders. It is vital that government agencies place sufficient safeguards into their contracts with private providers to ensure the government has the ability to intervene in cases where merited."

You can read the full report here: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/Ombudsman/.

First Amendment fail

A Georgia state lawmaker recently proposed the creation of a state journalism ethics board, which would have the authority to request copies of reporters’ recorded interviews.

Reporters who fail to comply would be subject to a lawsuit and civil penalty, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The proposal was introduced by a Republican state lawmaker who felt a TV reporter who interviewed him showed bias in the reporting, the paper said. The lawmaker is retiring from the statehouse, but his proposal also has five co-sponsors.

Such a proposal should be chilling to anyone who values the free press or, really, the U.S. Constitution.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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