Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Unfinished Business 1

By Bill Kraus

It’s an insiders game, and the insiders will do what they can to keep it that way. They will say that everyone else is uninterested in politics and governing, and there is plenty of proof that this is dismayingly true. Not as true as they say though.

It is perpetuated by the insiders in several ways. They don’t invite outsiders in. They are particularly wary of academics who at one time provided the kind of expertise and creative thinking that made things like the Wisconsin Idea possible. In Wisconsin it was a rare government that didn’t have UW staffers or professors in cabinet jobs and sprinkled elsewhere throughout the government in positions of power. They have been replaced in at least the last two administrations by legislative staffers, bureau careerists, former legislators and other insiders.

The Blue Ribbon Commissions that looked at the mole hills like efficiency as well as the mountains like public education are nowhere to be seen. Even the studies and recommendations like those that came out of Bonnie Reese’s legislative council where legislators and outside experts and activists pondered the imponderable have fallen into disuse. These not only brought citizens and outsiders into the inner circle, they also give citizens and outsiders a relationship with and understanding of the bureaucracy and bureaucrats who make the government work. Bring them back.

The insiders do not communicate in ways that would spark the interests of outsiders who would bring other perspectives and, even better, ideas to those who govern. The “I’d rather do it myself, mother” attitude of political staffers and administrators is pervasive. Knowledge is power. The temptation is, if you have it, to keep it to yourself.

An active, pervasive, annoying, and very large press corps did much to bring political information to the people. That collection of what one former governor refers to, affectionately, as “ink stained wretches” is pretty much gone. Starved, not unlike the once powerful public unions, by a revenue stream shutdown. What we lost besides a common source of information was the discipline that the print press imposed on those in power. Leaders read the papers. They knew their constituents read the papers. There is a positive side to knowing whatever you say or do will appear in the paper. Makes you careful.

What we learn from our more insular governments now is pretty much what our governments tell us. Not so much. Governments aren’t forced to report in the way, say, public businesses are. So they don’t. They make no particular effort to make information interesting and easy to understand. The greatest non-communication trick is to overload the receivers with unedited, arcane facts and data. The purpose is to drive away, not inform. “Want to know about the affordable care act? Read the bill. Here it is. It’s 1000 pages long.” Goodbye.

Then complain that the public doesn’t know anything.

How many administrations [and legislatures] feel that since they are doing the public’s business, the public has the right to know what they are doing? Not many. Most say they believe in the “right to know” principle. And most who say that also believe that the public doesn’t have the right to know very much.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s rise to prominence can be traced in no small measure to her contention that the game is rigged. It is. In secret.

A simpler description would be “you don’t count anymore” or the WC Fields standby “go away, kid, you bother me.”

It doesn’t take an executive order or a legislative act to open up and speak up. All it takes is a will to do so by those who are elected to run the place.

So? As the Nike ad says: Just Do It.

Bill Kraus lives in Madison, is the former press secretary for Governor Lee Dreyfus, and is the Chair of the State Governing Board of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

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