Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Open Government and Citizen Responsibility

I had a couple things happen today that reminded me how the concepts of "open government" (or "transparency") and "citizen responsibility" go hand in hand.

First, I was interviewed on a talk radio show in Michigan by a very thoughtful host (yes, they're out there) who wanted to know how people can be most effective in getting their message across to their legislators. He noted that many people are distressed about all the terrible things they hear about the major initiatives making their way through Congress (health care reform and climate change legislation being the most recent examples). How can an average citizen, he wondered, sort through it all?

The answer, quite simply, is they can't. Hey, I'm sorry to say it, but it's frankly impossible for anyone -- average citizen or Nobel prize winner -- to sort through the thousands of bills introduced in Congress and understand and have a thoughtful perspective on all of them. It's hard for most of us to do that for just one bill.

Frankly, that's why we have (gasp!) special interests. The people within these organizations spend a great deal of time culling through all the various bills making sure that the people they represent aren't harmed (or are helped) by the bill. If you're employed by someone, a member of a group like the AARP, HSUS or even the NRA, have ever bought anything or, ummm, breathe, chances are you've got one of those special interests working for you. And that's GOOD news. Thanks goodness we don't have to track down all this stuff ourselves.

This perspective was further solidified when I listened in on the Kojo Nnamdi show's great session on Open Government (more information on the WAMU website). The guests (from the Sunlight Foundation and Adobe) talked about the work they're doing to make Congressional information more accessible -- and what can be done to improve access to that information.

I'm 100% in agreement that nothing should be hidden. Bills should be posted, statements should be made public, citizens should know what their money is being spent on. At the same time, I also think more needs to be done to explain the significance of the information we're so busy pumping out. All the best information in the world isn't valuable unless people understand it in the context of the legislative process.

In short, I'm all for open government. But with that openness comes, I believe, a measure of citizen responsibility. We must, as Socrates might say, know what we don't know about issues and be willing to learn and explore the various nuances. That will be far more productive, and serve our democracy far better, than angry outbursts at what we've "heard" about particular bills.