Monday, June 7, 2010

Paradox of government- listening to the squeaky, whiny wheels

Was at an interesting seminar today. It went over ways that government agencies can improve the outcomes of public input on projects. To the presenter's credit, he mentioned that many public meetings serve no purpose and only get in the way of good implementation and progress on projects.

Let's take a step back on this. One of the huge differences between the public and private sectors is that the public sector has to care what the average citizen thinks about a new initiative, strategy, or project. It's their tax dollars, their elected officials, and therefore their right to demand details and information. The same is certainly not true in the corporate sector, where businesses only have to please their owner and shareholders, and can say the hell with anyone else. This accountability is a huge reason why I favor the public sector over the privates when it comes to providing needed services to maintain a decent quality of life, because the private sector has no reason to listen or care about what effect their actions have on other citizens in their community or society at large - it's all about the Benjamins to them. And a recent poll agrees, as it finds citizens have high standards for the job they think government, and they have a near-record low approval rating of 22% for government because it has not done enough to solve our problems (with big business even lower, at 19%)

Where the public sector frequently fails to get the job done on putting in changes is because of this country's propensity to give political power to loud, organized groups that can focus on an issue. The average everyday citizen has no time or interest to take 3 hours out of their week to attend a public meeting, but you can bet a lobbying group can. So can the average couch-potato daytime talk show listener with no life to speak of. Those people get the ear of legislators, public officials, and media, and get a disproportionate amount of influence. Plus, it's a lot easier to be angry than to be accepting of a solution, or to even have an idea of any solution that works. This is what talk radio feeds on - lots of button-pushing, not a lot of answers. And the reason is because pushing buttons are where the ratings (and therefore the money) is at.

Not surprisingly, this is how issues with huge public support, like the need to modify our broken, growth-stunting health care system, don't get fixed as quickly or nearly as much as most citizens demand that it should, because the Silent Majority does not get the mike. One way that governments could reduce items like the farce that became the health care debate is to have a clear, concise story explaining the problem (i.e. rising health care costs with no requirement to serve citizens), and the reasons why government should act to reduce the problem (i.e. allow for more citizen choice in providers, better business growth by containing health costs, reducing the debt citizens have to go into to get care, better health outcomes due to regular check-ups, etc.) The Obama Administration should have predicted the lies and deceptions that were going to result, and had their story out ahead of it. Instead, they were surprised by the "death panel" and "socialism" lies about their plan, and had to explain it away after the horse was out of the barn, when they could have gone straight to the people ahead of the charges, and moot their impacts.

Now, that being said, governments also have to understand that citizen are by nature lazy and selfish. They think a government agency "listening" to them is a government agency agreeing with them. It is not. Government officials should take care to explain to citizens that they hear the concern they may have, but they will not choose that course of action because of x, y, and z. Now, they'd better have that reason lined up and have developed and communicated it to the public ahead of time, because citizens are rightfully confused and often honked off when something comes out of nowhere and is thrown in front of them. This can be done through direct contact such as mailings and other informative documents, not just through public meetings (would you waste your Wednesday night after work to find out where the new highway might go? I prefer to try out a solid cold one and some good sports over that, and I'm someone who knows and cares about this stuff!).

If government officials take those steps, they have every right to tell a citizen who complains "You never told us about this!", "Well, we mailed this, we went to the media here, we had this hearing there, we had more public outreach here, you had your chance to be heard." It's why the BS from the GOP about how the health care bill was "rammed through" was and is such a disgusting lie. The issue had been debated for 9 months and the various bills had been online for several weeks. If you didn't know about what was in it and what was being discussed, that's a YOU PROBLEM. One great thing and at the same time bad thing about American democracy is that we expect that citizens should be heard at every step of the process, regardless of how little expertise, understanding, and small-picture outlook a few vocal citizens may have.

And talk radio has only served to increase this dysfunctional system, because they try to tell these "everyday citizens" they have "common sense" when unlike the majority of us, they have time during the day to be duped by that ranting claptrap, and those shut-ins have no idea (or don't care) on the overall effect of a certain policy on the outside world. They also deride "elitism" when expertise in a given area should be a demand, and not a detriment to an official's competence. The elites should be educating the citizenry on areas that they know more about, and explaining it in plain, everyday language that allows citizens the chance to identify why the government is choosing a certain plan of action. But if citizens choose to ignore this outreach, I don't understand how that is a failure of government.

Angry-man radio is really the worst of the self-esteem movement, because it blames the listener's personal shortcomings and failures on symboiic and unseen forces that allow citizens to not take responsibility in solving the big problems that need to dealt with. As noted in the article on today's low faith in institutions, "On a psychological level, people are less likely to take responsibility for things these days," said Lou Manza, professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "So if something goes wrong, it's somebody else's fault and somebody has to fix it." Talk radio empowers citizens in false ways through manufactured outrage and slashing at windmills, instead of giving true empowerment by expanding citizens' understanding of the world, and giving them the chance to use that knowledge to improve thier lives. Government can do this empowering too, but media doesn't get readership and ratings by talking about good things, so it makes competent, intelligent outreach all the more crucial for agencies and legislators to undertake.

Once governments realize the balancing act where citizen concerns should be listened to and taken into account, but are not the be all and end all of policymaking, they will function more smoothly, and the citizenry will believe in them more. But if they allow other parties to take control of the agenda and change the issues, government will not only have to settle for sub-optimal outcomes, it will play into the hands of those who think government cannot function, and reduce confidence. We're at a key breaking point in this country, where we either wrestle control away from the corporate state, or give it up forever. Good, respectful outreach combined with tough love is going to have to be the way that government, and by extension, the people, can triumph. If they have the guts to.

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