Trouble with transparency saddles governor with credibility gap in crisis

This column first appeared in The Detroit News.

The New York Times editorial board assailed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for moves she’s made to hide data and public records from voters and the media in the midst of the global COVID-19 health crisis.

The Gray Lady blistered Whitmer, claiming she’s “trampled” open records laws. Their criticism merely amplified a growing murmur and dissatisfaction with Whitmer’s nontransparent handling of the crisis, particularly her penchant for hiding the science and data she claims guide her decision-making. 

That matters. There’s no shortage of academic literature exploring the outsized role trust plays in leadership. The Center for Creative Leadership puts a fine point on it, explaining “teams do not perform well without trust.” 

When the “team” is 10 million-strong, and it’s asked to risk poverty to combat the spread of a sometimes-deadly virus, that performance might mean the difference between life and death. In other words, moves that limit transparency and diminish the public’s trust in decision makers aren’t just bad politics — they’re dangerous and harmful. 

Sadly, these are the choices Whitmer continues to make. 

Three weeks ago, the governor unveiled her six-phase reopening plan, and according to the governor we’re locked in phase three. Out-of-work moms and dads who look at her flashy graphics notice that, according to the governor, moving to phase four happens when “cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are clearly declining.” 

Michigan saw new cases peak in mid-April. Hospitalization rates, positive test rates, mortality rates — you name it — plummeted for nearly a month. 

The governor’s own personal, public science and data benchmarks say it’s time to re-engage. She refuses. Why? Well, to hear her tell it, it’s because of some other science and data. What other science and data she simply refuses to say. And the public’s trust frays. 

The same public turns on the news and sees stories about nursing homes and the devastating effect COVID-19 is having on their patients. Here in Michigan, while only 22% of COVID cases involve patients 70 and older, this group accounts for 69% of the state’s roughly 5,000 deaths. 

Despite the virus’ cataclysmic effect on seniors, one of the governor’s first executive orders established nursing homes as regional “hubs” where the state sends COVID-19 patients to recover. 

Asked at a press conference about her executive order, Whitmer stepped away from the podium and tagged in the state’s chief medical officer who would only say that it was a good decision. She declined to explain the science or the data. 

Asked how many COVID-19 deaths have occurred among the state’s nursing home population, the governor and her cabinet officials say they don’t even have the data — the data Whitmer insists is driving her decision making. Moments like this chip further away at voters’ trust. 

So did the recent flip-flop Whitmer took on the goal of her stay-home order. When she locked workers off their job sites, she claimed the move was to “flatten the curve” and avoid overrunning hospitals. 

Those are measurable goals. Voters understood them, and even many of Whitmer’s traditional political opponents embraced them. 

Then she moved the goal posts. Instead of flattening the curve — a measurable goal — she’s altered the deal and told residents she’ll keep them under lock and key to “avoid a second wave at all costs.” That’s a goal, obviously, with no measurable objective or end point. 

Pressed by reporters, Whitmer said her decision to eventually let moms and dads earn a living again depends not on numbers or data but “depends on human nature, it depends on human activity.” 

Not the science. Not the data. Those say re-engage. Instead, “human nature” is guiding her decisions? Well, sure. One human’s in particular. 

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

 

 

Join the Frontlines

Subscribe to receive email updates!