Julie is a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and is working with the Welsh Liberal Democrats at the National Assembly for Wales until Christmas.
As an American student who has lived in Cardiff for one week now, I have been shocked by the degree of transparency I have noticed within the National Assembly. I received a tour of the Seneed and learned that the building was created for the public. The entire structure has been built to be accessible to everyone – people with hearing disabilities, sight impairments, and mobility problems. There are even changing rooms with assistants in case someone has trouble using the facilities! After passing through simple security, you can approach the reception counter and receive a pass to watch Plenary meetings. All Assembly sessions are open to everyone and the viewing rooms were built with the idea that the public can quite literally look down on the politicians representing them.
The Plenary sessions, themselves, are also incredibly transparent. Question and answers sessions are designed to allow Assembly members to question the First Minister and other ministers directly. Reviewing many of the question and answer sessions, I can say the Assembly members don’t hold back – they say what they feel and even argue with the ministers. In this way, all party members, whether they are a part of the majority (or the coalition, in this case) or a minority, are held accountable for their actions and have a chance to voice their opinions in front of the Assembly and the public audience.
And for those citizens who are unable to attend any Plenary sessions, the debates are shown on TV and records of everything that was said are available online.
Alright, so what’s so different in America, right? So far all I’ve done is describe a system that is familiar to you and, therefore, not shocking at all. Let me try to explain why I was so surprised when I was introduced to the Welsh Assembly.
I will preface this by saying that the American Federal Government is immense – with a myriad of offices, departments, and agencies – and (to be fair) it is probably harder for it to be as transparent as the Welsh Assembly. The complexity of the American system has created tons of bureaucratic red tape and roadblocks that separate the public from the politicians.
Travelling to Washington DC for the first time this summer, I had a chance to experience the core of the American government. I made sure to visit all of the major monuments and memorials – Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson – and I walked right up to all of them. The White House, the Capital Building, and the Supreme Court are a different story. I stopped by all of them but, of course, I wasn’t allowed near them. Tours of federal buildings (if they are offered at all) are incredibly difficult to come by and, generally, only include the most public areas. Even state-level government buildings are often closed off to the public.
As you may have guessed after reading my last paragraph, the public isn’t allowed to watch Congressional meetings. Selected discussions within Congress and other federal agencies are made available online but much of the information is kept from the public as a “security” or “top secret” matter. The only times political sessions are shown on public television networks are if they are discussing a matter of incredible importance or if a politician directly confronts another. In America, being direct is equivalent to a scandalous confrontation that is greatly scowled down on.
Overall, transparency is not one of the American government’s strong suits and it reflects greatly on the public’s ability to gauge what is going on within its own country. I will continue to look longingly upon the direct and open attitude of the Welsh Assembly during my remaining months here and hope, in vain, that one day American politicians will take the public seriously enough to let them know what’s going on.