Lack of openness led to ‘Save Iowa History’

In politics, the truth is too often drowned out by perceptions, and such perceptions are driven by a lack of transparency.

Like most of you, I’ve been watching the dust-up over changes at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and especially how those changes will impact the State Historical Society of Iowa in both the Des Moines and Iowa City locations. What I’ve learned can be boiled down to perceptions.

Before I began writing this column I went searching for the meeting minutes of the Iowa Arts Council and the Iowa Cultural Trust board of directors. Outside of three limited documents from 2013, the minutes were not available via the Internet. I’ve requested the documents along with their attachments from DCA staff, and fully expect that I’ll receive them. But that hasn’t eased concerns about why they weren’t already publicly posted.

While my initial intention was merely to skim the documents for background information concerning the research report produced by Canada-based consultant Lord Cultural Resources, which cost the department more than $800,000, I now doubt my perusal will be quite so casual. I’d be foolish to think any earth-shattering nugget of information will be tucked within official board minutes, but the lack of transparency makes me wonder if there’s something no one wanted to be seen.

A flyer posted on one of the doors at the State Historical Society of Iowa office in Iowa CIty announces reduced hours. The change, combined with staffing declines and a consultant's report, have left many wondering if the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has already begun to quietly plan the closing of the Iowa City facility and reduce overall access to original collections.
A flyer posted on one of the doors at the State Historical Society of Iowa office in Iowa CIty announces reduced hours. The change, combined with staffing declines and a consultant’s report, have left many wondering if the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has already begun to quietly plan the closing of the Iowa City facility and reduce overall access to original collections. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

The same holds true of the report. The DCA website provides information related to the 2014 listening posts held across the state, including digital copies of key findings, executive summary and full report resulting from those meetings — documents also produced by Lord Cultural Resources. Yet, there is no link to the June 2014 research report which has prompted concerns.

Likewise, the link that leads to the department’s annual and performance reports hasn’t seen any action since fiscal year 2009. The last annual report available is from fiscal year 2007.

Strategic plans for the department and for the Iowa Arts Council are available on the website. Both date to the fall of 2012, but were intended as guidance through 2015.

Feeling welcomed and informed yet?

Have state leaders removed the reporting mandate? The website doesn’t say. Are the documents available elsewhere? Again, there’s no note. Did the department’s webmaster lapse into a coma before he could share the passwords needed to update the site? I couldn’t find any news clips about it. Since the department appears to be promoting Gov. Terry Branstad’s Iowa Next initiative, which was rolled out as part of the Governor’s address in January, passwords haven’t been lost.

All of this murkiness is at the heart of discussions about the future plans of the DCA and how the State Historical Society fits into it.

Some facts:

• The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has six primary functions: The Iowa Arts Council, State Historical Museum, State Historic Preservation Office, State Archives and Records, various historic sites and Produce Iowa (state office for media production). According to the research report by Lord Cultural Resources Is this the report you say you couldn’t find online, no other state has organized in this way, and the DCA is stretched too thin.

• Under Branstad’s proposed Iowa Next initiative, the Department of Cultural Affairs would jointly administer a new $26 million granting program with the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation.

• About 1,600 bundles of newspapers are piled up at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines. They’ve not been sent of for preservation since 2009, when state budget cuts ended the 50-year practice. Last year a bill was introduced at the statehouse to provide funding to preserve the backlog, but the Department of Cultural Affairs nixed it, indicating that the department would first like to complete a review of its collections.

• Staff size for the state archives has decreased by 54 percent since 2000.

• Hours have been reduced at the research libraries. DCA staff has said this is to provide time for staff to conduct a full assessment of the collections.

• Iowa’s state archives ranked in the bottom five states for budget size in 2012, and last among those that provide archive and records management.

• Although the Iowa Code mandates the position of state archivist, the department went more than five years without one.

• The 200-page research report produced by Lord Cultural Resources includes a recommendation of consolidating the state historical libraries now housed in Des Moines and Iowa City.

So, we essentially know that the duties of the department are diverse, and that the agencies are strapped for cash. In the interim, the tasks of preserving, processing and curating key historical items has languished.

Presumably department leadership has an idea on how to stem the tide. But, if they do, it isn’t being openly shared, and that’s leading to perceptions of nefarious intent.

When the department learned of a petition that was being circulated to members of the Midwestern History Association, for instance, State Archivist Anthony Jahn responded to that organization’s list.

“We have an ongoing Strategic Planning process,” Jahn wrote, “and, as it nears completion we look forward to continuing the conversation with Iowans and other interested parties detailing how our unprecedented initiative to improve history in Iowa will: preserve our collections for all Iowans; engage Iowans across all 99 counties through improved collection accessibility, preservation and sustainability; and inspire all Iowans to connect with their past for a brighter present and future.”

Efforts by advocates would be “very impactful if they were focused on the capital funding bill currently being considered,” he added.

The Department of Cultural Affairs is rightfully very proud of its 2014 “statewide conversations” program, which asked Iowans in several key cities and through social media to discuss various aspects of its duties. Anytime a state agency voluntarily chooses to engage residents outside of its Des Moines office is a good thing. But it is also difficult to assess how group questions ranging from where individuals “go for fun” in their town and what makes their community “culturally vibrant” translate into the consolidation of the Des Moines and Iowa City offices.

Perhaps the recommendation was based on the group question: “How can all of this be shared in a revitalized State Historical Building of Iowa?” Hard to find wiggle-room there for two buildings. Hard to see how any of it relates to preserving existing collections or acquiring and protecting new ones.

And the idea that Iowans, once sought after and tapped for engagement by the DCA, must now wait alongside regional organizations to learn what “unprecedented initiative to improve Iowa history” is already underway is a slap in the face of those who participated in good faith.

If the DCA wants to end the perception that it doesn’t plan to gut a more than 150-year investment in Iowa’s history, it needs to begin showing its work.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 5, 2015. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette