An era of transparency dawns, but is it too good to be true?

TRANSPARENCY is not a natural instinct for many politicians. Most do not feel any natural inclination to share with the world bits of information on what bills they have paid or what offerings they have received for what should have been a public service – but wasn’t.

TRANSPARENCY is not a natural instinct for many politicians. Most do not feel any natural inclination to share with the world bits of information on what bills they have paid or what offerings they have received for what should have been a public service – but wasn’t.

Usually politicians do not rush to fully disclose deals they might have set up for firms close to their patrons. After much prodding, they might sometimes show a scrap of paper or a fragment of information here or there, claiming that a trade secret, or confidential data, or a wide range of strategic interests justifies keeping certain types of information far away from the public gaze.

This is exactly why the declared effort of the government of Iveta Radičová to have all public contracts that involve state money published in their entirety on the internet seems too good to be true.

Nevertheless, Radičová and Justice Minister Lucia Žitnanská are saying that this is what will happen and as soon as members of parliament lift agree to pass the legislation no government contract will become valid unless it has been published on the internet, ready to be scrutinised by a much wider audience than just the public procurement office.

Would the mega-scandalous sale of Slovakia’s state emission quotas to the murky garage firm Interblue Group – which has been ‘entertaining’ Slovak taxpayers with an assortment of quirky tactics before and after its metamorphosis into Interblue Group Europe – have happened at all had the contract been published online first?

Minimally, one expects that at least one ethics watchdog would have figured out that something was quite fishy with a deal that offered to sell the quotas far below market price.

Anyway, Interblue is only one of the procurement incidents that have not only damaged Slovakia’s international reputation but also seriously dented the taxpaying public’s already wobbly faith in political ethics.

Which really means that the least Robert Fico and his former Smer buddies can do is to push the ‘yes’ button for this legislation in parliament.

Hopefully, this government will move quickly to adopt the legislation soon, while members of the ruling coalition are still endeared to the “transparency is more than just a word” slogan or, if nothing else, at least intend to act as though they are.

Their head of steam will certainly evaporate after a certain time, when some coalition members realise that the fingers of some government officials signing the contracts might slip from time to time and put their signatures on deals that will not be the most beneficial for the state.

Then Radičová will be judged based on how she and her ministers treat such cases: whether they serve the media volumes of empty political talk defending the clearly indefensible or perhaps blaming journalists for bringing it to public light; or whether political responsibility will be promptly and rightfully taken by sacking those at the top – not just some third-rank employee in order to provide the media with some red meat.

Over the past four years, the approach of our politicians towards transparency has become so deformed that the public has grown accustomed to political conduct that could hardly be called ‘transparent’ even with multiple transfusions of good will.

Now, when politicians are promising to make changes that, in fact, should already be the standard in a society which claims to follow certain principles in giving its citizens the necessary tools to exercise public control, one should not feel that the country is now heading towards some kind of transparency nirvana where there will never again be anything like the bulletin-board, fly-ash or cleaning-work tenders, just to mention three code names for Slovakia’s recent textbook examples of squandering (or pilfering) public money, or attempting to do so.

There will always be politicians who will want to channel just a few drops from what they see as a bottomless supply of public funds, thought to be there for shared use, to their little personal gardens or those of friends, seeing nothing wrong with doing so or having the feeling that they are simply entitled to these perks of office.

Such individual cases cannot be fully prevented because of human imperfection, but what can be done is to change the system in such a way that the temptation and the space for diverting those little drops of public wealth to private gardens will be strongly limited by the glare of public exposure.

And let’s hope that this is truly what is happening in Slovakia right now.

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