It's the tone at the top, Stupid
...or sh**t rolls down hill.
Today’s column is by Richard W. Gilbert.
The governor of Iowa is now a defendant in a lawsuit charging her with withholding information from the public. Bleeding Heartland: LAWSUIT Des Moines Register: LAWSUIT
On the eve of its 2022 session, the Iowa Senate overturns a decades-long practice of providing a space for working journalists in the senate chambers.
Both ho-hum news in a crowded news cycle, but it is enough to set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about clean and open government at all levels in Iowa.
At least alarm bells go off for me.
I come at this column with two perspectives. First, long ago, I was an insider in state government as Governor Bob Ray's press secretary. Second, I was the lead independent director for the Principal Mutual Funds, organized by the Principal Financial Group of Des Moines.
Both that governor's office and that mutual funds complex took maintaining public trust very seriously.
As Ray's press secretary, I knew that taxpayers paid my salary, although the governor was my direct boss. As a trustee of the Principal Mutual Funds, my accountability was not to the executives at The Principal. It was to the thousands of people who had put their savings into the mutual funds organized by the Principal.
As a press secretary, my job was not to control access to what went on in state government. It was to make the information accessible.
When reporters ran into obstacles to learning what was going on, it was my job to get the barriers out of the way.
At the Principal, we independent directors asked tough questions as representatives of the investors.
These behaviors were the norm. In both environments, state government and asset management, the watchword was the same: "don't do or say anything you would be ashamed to see on tomorrow morning's front page.
Which brings me to the obvious question— what's the objective of stonewalling or making it more difficult for the reporters covering deliberations of the Iowa Senate? What don't these elected officials want the people of Iowa to know or see?
In the absence of accurate information, folks make things up. You can forgive citizens for ascribing sinister motives to elected officials hiding from the press.
Governor Ray was the only statewide elected official in the nation to hold a daily news conference, Monday through Friday. (Reporters also had access on weekends.) This openness was not for personal aggrandizement, but it helped him do his job. The governor had what amounted to dozens of pairs of ears and eyes in the form of reporters combing state government and asking questions. It meant Ray could know what was going on. When a little problem looked like it could fester into something harmful to the state, it could be dealt with quickly, avoiding a worse situation if ignored.
The same is valid for corporate governance. Leadership at the Principal welcomed accountability and took very seriously the rules and regulations set out for people charged with stewardship of other people's money: no shortcuts, no secrets, no problem.
One takeaway from my time as an asset management fiduciary was the role of the Securities and Exchange Commission, affectionally known as the SEC. Serving on the funds' audit committee, I saw how the SEC staffers would make deep dives into our record-keeping and our compliance to assure all the guard rails were in place.
But those SEC folks did something else that most shareholders might not even know. When their reports came back, they not only opined on the bookkeeping and compliance but also gave their assessment of "the Tone at the Top."
Just Google it. 'Tone at the Top' is used to define management's leadership and commitment towards openness, honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior.
Principal earns high marks for 'Tone at the Top.'
In Bob Ray's governor's office, the Tone at the Top was clear, the same commitment to openness and the other watchwords set out above. I can't speak to what went on in other Iowa governor's offices, but several respected Iowa journalists have expressed concern to me about the current one.
Tone at the Top is also crucial because it trickles down, usually pretty darn fast!
In my view, the person in charge of communications in the governor's office should be pounding on the beautiful desk in the big upstairs office (the office with about 29 different kinds of marble in the wainscoting). Then saying, "Damn it, governor, we're the one office in the statehouse that should be opening access to the press, not stonewalling them!"
Come to think of it, that's the rationale for having the taxpayers pay for that particular salary on the governor's staff.
As to the latest sideshow in the Iowa Senate: If the legislators want to extract petulant payback on the press corps because the coverage of their august body is often embarrassing, then perhaps they should quit doing and or saying so many stupid things.
At a minimum, it looks like many of the senators have forgotten the first rule of good politics: "Make friends before you need them."
But even though reporters will workaround the desk fiasco and the governor's stonewalling, the real damage is to the Iowa government, therefore Iowans.
Don't think for a moment that other state officials, county officials, city officials, all either elected or appointed, aren't aware of the Tone at the Top in Iowa state government. How many will withhold information or avoid an inquiring reporter? Thinking, 'if the top officials in Des Moines do it, why can't we?'
Consider for a moment that the pesky news reporter isn't covering goings-on at the statehouse, your local courthouse, or city hall only because they want to sell papers.
Consider for a moment that they are a fiduciary of your right to know what's going on. In that regard, are they any different than a mutual fund director safeguarding your IRA?
That mutual fund director is only watching out for your money. That pesky reporter is on the front line in defense of your freedom.
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Richard, your point, "If the legislators want to extract petulant payback on the press corps because the coverage of their august body is often embarrassing, then perhaps they should quit doing and or saying so many stupid things." is well taken. Growing up in rural Iowa, as children you learned your lessons the hard way. Eventually you understood when it was proper to open your mouth and when it was far safer to keep your thoughts to yourself! How such decorum has bypassed this body is on them, if they don't want to hear what they say repeated, maybe it is best they resign and take their comments with them. Protecting this rabble from the public who elected them isn't the job of the legislative body, and especially those who have better sense and know how to not open their mouths and insert their feet!
Thanks for writing this, Richard. You had the great fortune to work for a leader with integrity, who believed he governed for ALL the people of Iowa. I hope you're doing well. Susan and I spend part of our days wondering/guessing what The Old Reporter's take would be on so many things in the last 10 years.