Study ranks state governments on transparency, corruption

Inside the dome of the Michigan State Capitol, Lansing, Michigan (photo by: Dave Parker, 2006)
Inside the dome of the Michigan State Capitol, Lansing, Michigan (photo by: Dave Parker, 2006)

To many, “government integrity” is, and has always been, an oxymoron. We rarely expect those who we hire to serve us from whichever office, chamber or desk, to remain, or retain, the commitment to honest, open government they may have promised when they were asking for our vote. Occasionally, in times of particularly lean trust in the leaders we have, we set aside our cynicism and look to a candidate who says the right things about restoring that trust, and we sweep them into office, hoping that this time, it will be different.

But there are no guarantees. If the candidates we elect create new, government accountability laws, there is no evidence they will either enforce them against their cronies, or follow them themselves. “[T]he states with the worst reputations and sorriest histories of political corruption face the most public pressure to clean up their acts, so they pass new laws and strengthen old ones to create a framework of integrity,” wrote Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, a non-profit government watchdog group based in Chicago.

“That doesn’t mean that all of the public officials in those states are following the new rules or obeying the new laws,” he continued, “—you can lead a horse to water…etc., etc.—but at least they know what’s expected.”

Shaw was explaining the motivation behind, and usefulness of, his group’s third BGA-Alper Integrity Index. “It’s intended to inform people in all 50 states about the commitment their elected officials have to integrity, at least in the form of laws in the key areas we measured,” he said.

The study was conducted from June to December, 2012. The states were measured in four key areas of government ethics laws and codified practices: Open Meetings, Freedom of Information, Whistleblower Protection and Conflict of Interest. An average of each of the grades each state received, in each of those areas, was then used to rank the states, from least vulnerable to corruption, to most susceptible, based on the laws of that state.

State Government Integrity rankings
From the 2013 BGA-Alper Services Integrity Index
(Click to enlarge)

For example: Rhode Island finished first with an overall score of 69.77%; Georgia was right in the middle, at number 25, with 56.78%, and; Montana came in last, 50th of fifty, with an overall average of 28.06%. Now it is possible that Montana doesn’t have many corruption laws because they don’t have that much corruption, but that is unlikely, especially since they tried to get a dispensation from the Supreme Court over the Citizens United decision, because, they argued, there was a history of money taking over politics in the state. (They lost.)

But a high overall score does not mean that state was number one across-the-board, in the four areas measured. Rhode Island had the largest percentage of laws mandating open meetings, but Arkansas, perhaps surprisingly, got the highest score in responses to FOIA requests, 80.6%, and was still only tenth, overall.

Washington State had a super high grade – 82.8% – on the way it handles conflict of interest inquiries. The study not only took into account getting office holders to fill out conflict of interest questionnaires, but also the level of detail on the forms and the public’s access to them. Yet the folks in Olympia only came in eighth in the study, mostly because of a low score on their open meeting laws.

Michigan, apparently, has zero meaningful laws regarding conflict of interest. Thursday afternoon, Detroit filed for bankruptcy, after being “managed” by a state appointee, who was tasked with fixing the Motor City, and other struggling towns in the Great Lakes State. As my third grade teacher always said, a zero brings down your average. Hence, Michigan finished 48th. Pure Michigan, indeed.

Given the crackdown on whistleblowers at the federal level, one would think that states would be tightening their laws against those who report government corruption and malfeasance to the appropriate government outlet. But only nine states had a score below 50% when it came to giving whistleblowers a way to report safely, and protecting them from reprisals, like dismissal, and more. Incredibly, it was Texas that ranked highest in this criteria, with 81.3%, while holding a respectable seventh place, overall.

Besides Michigan’s zero, Idaho (46) and Vermont (43) also got goose eggs in the conflict of interest category, but Vermont scored highly in other categories. Alabama (45) had a zero in freedom of information laws.

Read the entire study here.

Shaw advises other government watchers, that even though these numbers reflect the truth based on the laws on the books, it doesn’t mean that the laws are enforced, or that we can assume they are, and forget about it. While they “are essential to creating an environment of preserving democracy and improving society,” he said, good government doesn’t just happen. It is up to us, “everyday people to ‘trust but verify’ what their public officials are doing or failing to do.”


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