Does Public Access to Government Prevent an 'Idiocracy' or Limit Innovation?
By Sam Williford, Associate Consultant (MPA '13)
Recently, Governor Brown and the California legislature approved a bill that would allow local governments the option not to send out advance notice of public meetings, or provide minutes from closed sessions (known as the Brown Act, not related to the current governor), in an effort to stem the tide of red ink in a state where multiple cities (including, most notably, Stockton) have gone bankrupt in the past few months. The move is estimated to save the state government $95 million in annual costs.
Some public administrators and officials feel the move sets a bad precedent. “Without question, we could use these resources for other important city objectives but informing the community should always be a vital function of government,” said Half Moon Bay City Manager Laura Snideman in the San Mateo County Daily Journal.
As noted in a recent Fels Research and Consulting report, social media as a form of mass media has continued to change the way government works and interacts with its citizens, but is this change necessarily a good thing?
Could the Founding Fathers have operated in today’s environment? The sacrifices necessary to forge the country, such as the Connecticut Compromise, which created the House of Representatives with its population based representation that favors large states and the Senate that gives equal weight to every state regardless of size. Tweets about the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan could have made further debate precarious.
While that is a somewhat fanciful example, it is far more difficult for elected officials and hired administrators to have healthy debate with raucous commentary and analysis that begins before they even complete their thoughts and ideas, as seen recently with the health care legislation and debt limit negotiations. In the case of the latter, the “super committee” held its sessions in private in a vain attempt to find a solution, showing that open government policies have a definitive downside.
Muckraking and informing the public about corruption are certainly an integral job of the media that must be balanced with the need for government agents to think and speak freely. While the country is somewhat removed from the days of yellow journalism that caused the Spanish-American War, mass media has done a subpar job of educating the public on important issues. According to a 2007 report conducted by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, “The media are often blamed for the lack of political knowledge among American citizens. American television news programs - especially local TV news, which is watched by more people than watch the network newscasts - tend to focus on stories that are dramatic or sensational, in order to appeal to a wider audience. There is very little in-depth coverage of issues or candidates' positions on them.”
To make matters worse, even if local media tried harder to avoid sensationalism, the public could possibly still misinterpret relevant issues critical to political discourse. As far back as 1922, Walter Lippmann wrote in his work Public Opinion that “the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation.” Unfortunately, it seems not much has changed on that front in the past nine decades. For example, a CNN poll conducted last year about government spending showed the public to be out of touch on several important issues. Two of the biggest blunders were the average belief that the federal government spends ten percent of its budget on foreign aid (it’s closer to one percent according to the Office of Management and Budget), and that the federal government spends five percent of its budget on public television and radio, when it is really one tenth of one percent.
The government should be held accountable to the taxpayers that fund it, but it has become a conundrum to implement important and complex programs due to a media and public that seek sensationalism without understanding important underlying facts. While the notion of “Who watches the watchmen?” is as old as the Roman poet Juvenal who coined the phrase in the second century AD, improvements in technology allows the public unprecedented access to government affairs that partial repeal of the Brown Act could undermine in a temporary effort to save money. The nature of this debate hinges on how to balance the need for the public to discourage corruption, while giving elected officials the freedom to encourage innovative ideas.