BGA Assembling Strong Watchdog Team in Springfield

Fewer watchdogs and less vigilance in the seat of state government presented the Better Government Association with a challenge and an opportunity as we considered the best way to fulfill one of our key objectives: Expanding the scope and impact of our watchdog work beyond the Chicago area.

The Capitol in Springfield is where elected officials allocate most of our state tax dollars, make major decisions that affect our lives, and manage a government wracked with chronic fiscal and ethical problems.

Springfield is also a small media market where, despite hard work and good intentions, there aren't enough news resources to hold our state officials sufficiently accountable.

Is there a connection between paragraphs one and two?

I think so, and I say that after spending a professional lifetime covering and watching Illinois government and politics, much of it in Springfield, as a Chicago-based reporter with the Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7; and now as the head of the non-partisan, non-profit Better Government Association.

I've witnessed news bureaus assigned to the Capitol shrink alarmingly over the past decade-plus, from teams of three or four journalists to a single reporter assisted by an intern to, in some cases, no coverage at all.

It's no one's fault — the economics of the news business, especially the print side, have changed dramatically as people get increasingly more of their information on-line at their desks or on the move instead of reading newspapers or tuning in to regular news programs.

Springfield residents have also been under-served historically by federal prosecutors who, for the most part, lacked the aggressive resolve of Chicago's corruption-busting U.S. attorneys, which may explain why a limited number of state officials — excluding governors — have been punished for bad behavior over the years.

This combination of fewer watchdogs and less vigilance in the seat of state government presented the Better Government Association with a challenge and an opportunity as we considered the best way to fulfill one of our key objectives: Expanding the scope and impact of our watchdog work beyond the Chicago area.

We decided to start by building relationships with Springfield's business, civic and media communities in advance of opening a BGA satellite office in the Capitol.

It's been a learning experience that's required an ability to listen — not just talk or lecture — and to appreciate the obvious:

Springfield is miles from Chicago, literally and figuratively.

State government in Springfield, for better or worse, has an outsized effect on people's lives.

You either work for it or with it, directly or indirectly, or someone close to you does — a friend, a relative or a neighbor.

That makes government extremely important, and necessary, to the lives and livelihoods of many Springfield residents, even if it's often wasteful, inefficient and corrupt.

Criticism of our state officials, and their policies, has to be tempered by that reality, so it requires a watchdog approach that's sensitive, measured and calm.

Springfield relationships also require a lengthy trust-building process to reassure even the most watchdog-friendly supporters we're not carpetbaggers or marauders bent on imposing Chicago-style values and standards on the sensible people of Central Illinois.

So we've adjusted, and in the last year-plus we've:

  • Raised significant dollars from Chicago-area donors who appreciate the importance of a BGA presence in Springfield;
  • Contracted with talented consultants in Springfield to work with us on legislation and civic engagement;
  • Partnered with news organizations on investigative stories, opinion pieces and talk radio segments;
  • And coordinated meet-and-greet events with as many local leaders as possible.
  • Along the way we've made dozens of acquaintances and some very good friends who've agreed to join, or consider joining, our new BGA Springfield Advisory Board, which is helping us build our Springfield watchdog program.

Most Springfield residents want honest, efficient government, and a healthy business climate, so our initiative is off to a good start, but it's still a work in progress.

In our Chicago office we've conducted more than 300 investigations over the past five years, prompting more than 90 tangible reforms that have held dozens of wayward officials accountable and saved millions of tax dollars.

We've also engaged more than 10,000 citizens through our training and education programs.

Now it's time to put some numbers on the board in Springfield.

State government, as we've written and talked about extensively, needs a fiscal and ethical overhaul, and Springfield is where much the repair work should be done.

So it's been exciting to recruit a first-rate fix-up team to participate in the overhaul.

We're still trying to decide on the right parts to use, and how to assemble them.

But as they say at the start of each year's Indy 500:

"Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.