Monday begins my seventh year at the Better Government Association, where I signed on in 2009 after nearly four decades as a print and TV journalist.
I’m marking the anniversary with a shout-out to our talented staff, dedicated nonprofit board, generous donors, strong media partners, including the Sun-Times, and the regular citizens who send us tips and ideas, attend our events and follow our watchdog work.
Together we shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable for the way they spend our hard-earned tax dollars and make policy decisions that affect our lives.
The BGA has made a lot of progress and had a significant impact in these six years, but we’re not celebrating because there’s too much unfinished business to take care of:
Too many governments around the state, large and small, facing budget shortfalls and mounting pension debt; too many public officials still worrying more about serving themselves than us; too many taxpayers feeling ripped off and powerless; and too many business leaders thinking about leaving Illinois.
That makes our mission more important than ever.
The BGA was established in 1923 by a small group of Chicago business, civic and religious leaders who were sick and tired of Al Capone calling the shots at City Hall. Their motto: “The best voter is an informed one, and the best citizen is an involved one.”
Their values back then are still ours today, 93 years later: Exposing problems, proposing solutions and keeping people informed.
We do that by investigating, litigating, educating, advocating and communicating. “BGA by the Numbers” is a running scorecard for measuring our progress over the past six years:
• 400-plus investigations, with a dozen media partners, revealing disturbing behavior and questionable policy decisions by government officials;
• 100-plus reforms — employees disciplined or fired, and policies changed, as a result of those investigations, saving taxpayers more than $50 million;
• 20-plus legal actions challenging government secrecy and misconduct;
• 30 journalism awards for our watchdog work.
I’m proud of those numbers, but they’re just the beginning. Our goal is to bring real, lasting reform to Illinois. That means: Addressing our budget and pension problems now, before we go over the fiscal cliff and into the abyss; eliminating waste, fraud, patronage, nepotism, cronyism, bureaucratic bloat, inside deals, conflicts of interest and pay-to-play; and continuing to demand a government that serves the public first, not the powerful and connected.
It’s easy to throw up your hands and say it’s a hopeless cause, but I’m an optimist whose cup is always half full, and I still wake up every morning with a passion for our work — buoyed by the knowledge that hundreds of others are fighting the status quo in their own way.
I’m also a realist who understands it’ll take thousands of additional civic-minded citizens, and a lot more time and effort, to get the job done.
The BGA will mark its 100th anniversary in 2023, and the best present any watchdog can wish for is the good government we all deserve. What a glorious centennial celebration that would be!
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.