Accountability and Transparency
• Lack of public information and open records
• Lack of public input on decisions affecting the public interest
• Loss of recourse if the public is harmed
Democratically elected governments are accountable to voters and their processes are open to public scrutiny. Privatization shuts the public out of decision-making that deeply affects the public interest.
Terms of privatization contracts often are decided behind closed doors, without any public input. In some cases, the public is unaware of the possibility of a privatization deal until the contract is almost finalized. A prime example is the privatization of Chicago’s parking meters, which was planned and negotiated without public knowledge, and left the public extremely unhappy with the outcomes.
Transparency also refers to the public’s ability to obtain information regarding government contracts. While government documents generally are available through open records requests, private companies can shield information from public view by claiming it has a proprietary status.
Another important aspect of accountability and transparency relates to the government’s ability to properly manage contracts. Contracts and governmental policy must contain adequate mechanisms for monitoring and oversight to ensure contract compliance and hold contractors accountable for contractual abuses and the failure to deliver on promised deliverables.
In many large complicated contracts, it is difficult to hold companies accountable partly because no one can anticipate all possible contingencies and set consequences, and partly because companies may be able to shield important information from the government. Furthermore, governments that have sunk a lot of time and money into a contractual relationship may choose not to hold the contractor accountable for fear of losing that initial investment or the transaction costs associated with contract cancellation.
As the Blackwater Nisoor Square case shows, it can be difficult for the government to hold a private company accountable for even the most heinous actions. A New York Times editorial titled "Privatized War and Its Price" (January 2010) noted that in dismissing charges against Blackwater agents for killing civilians in Iraq, a federal judge "highlighted the government’s inability to hold mercenaries accountable for crimes they commit."
Earlier this month, a federal judge unsealed a torrent of court documents that revealed the nation’s largest prison privatizer, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) had understaffed the Idaho Correction Center (ICC) at unsafe levels, having falsified nearly 5,000 staff hours. The under-staffing led to violence levels at ICC that were four times higher than at the states seven publicly owned and operated prisons combined.Read more »
Companies looking to take control of public services are winning government contracts for a wide array of services ranging from state prisons to local water systems to public schools, and often without much public oversight. Read more »
As a part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and the freedom of information, In the Public Interest is calling for increased transparency in government contracting and privatization deals.
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