Transparency, Open Government, and Education

On January 21, 2009 President Obama issued a memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government” which was published in the Federal Register on January 26, 2009, Vol. 74, No. 15, p. 4685.   There he stated that his administration would work to create “an unprecedented level of openness in Government” and work to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration” with the goal of strengthening our democracy.  Different paragraphs in the memo state that “government should be transparent” in order to promote accountability; “government should be participatory” in order to improve the quality of its decisions; and that”government should be collaborative” in order to actively engage Americans in the work of their government.  These goals are well aligned with the ideals of our democracy.  Yet they may assume an intellectual infrastructure that is not yet in place.  A column in the December 24 & 31, 2007 New Yorker titled “Twilight of the Books” cited a Department of Education study on literacy that indicated that the proportion of adults capable of comparing viewpoints in two editorials at 13%.  A 2005 study by the American Bar Association indicated that only 55% of adults surveyed could name the three branches of government. Other studies have indicated that many Americans lack the literacy needed to handle complex, real-life tasks like reviewing credit card offers and other financial instruments.

Participatory engagement would suggest knowing the branches of government and their functions, and understanding the different proposals made.  Although engaging more Americans in the work of government is a laudable goal, it is one that will require more than posting data online and otherwise making text available.  We also need to equip citizens for informed dialogues in which they can learn from and inform each other, as well as provide input to their elected officials.  This will require active effort to build skills and a range of media.  If done well it has the potential to revitalize public involvement.  Suggestions for engaging the public made elsewhere on this blog have included public debates and other kinds of forums.  How do we best equip the public for a participatory role in modern government? Your suggestions are welcome.

Dialogue: Part of “The How That Matters”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a column on the economic crisis titled “Why How Matters.”  After reviewing the “hows” of why our financial markets ended up in disarray, he concluded: “We need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way. That is, people making decisions based on business judgment, experience, prudence, clarity of communications and thinking about how — not just how much”. “Why how matters” in our political life as well. There too, we need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way, and we need judgment, experience, prudence, and a clarity of communications.

The public seems to be ready.  In our recent national elections, candidates that emphasized hope, community and a lessening of fear-based partisan attacks prevailed.  President-Elect Obama emphasized these themes in his acceptance speech when he encouraged us to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long”.  He went on to say that “This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”

McCain reflected a similar sentiment in his concession speech when he urged “all Americans who supported me to join me not just in congratulating [President-Elect Obama], but in offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

Civil dialogue builds the trust necessary to form the bonds of community and tackle complex issues.  Dialogue encourages us to listen to the thoughts and experiences of others, and helps us to discover new ideas and ask better questions.  With dialogue, we are more likely to think about how our decisions might affect others and identify unintended consequences.  This in turn is likely to lead to wiser decisions.  As Daniel Yankelovich stated in, The Magic of Dialogue, “An ideal use of dialogue is to reconcile conflicting systems of social values”.  Using dialogue to both inform and engage a broad group of citizens is part of the “how” that will allow for change. By listening, sharing, and working together we are more likely to find and promote the public good, and to make sustainable decisions.

Education, Participation, and Responsibility

Jefferson once wrote that we must “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”  In supporting public education he spoke of the need to train people to be the guardians of their own liberty.  A recent Case foundation report, Citizens at the Center, indicates that the average American is not equipped with the knowledge, literacy, and analytical skills needed to assess the issues that we face today.  Yet, without the participation of these citizens, our solutions will be ill informed and incomplete.  How do we infuse Americans with the skills needed to meaningfully contribute to dialogue?  What role can our system of education play in building this dialogue and promoting ongoing engagement?  Who has the responsibility to ensure citizen engagement?  Who benefits when citizens don’t have the skills to engage in dialogue?