Leaders in state and local governments persistently claim that they want to be more transparent, and we believe that this is a sincere goal. That’s why we’re frustrated about a troubling phenomenon that we encounter with increasing frequency; their phone numbers and e-mail addresses – and sometimes even their names -- are no place to be found.
The following is going to be a combination of an observation and a rant.
When we begin work on a column or a report, we start to seek out the people in positions that we think will make them well equipped to answer our questions and help us get things right. If we’re smart, our first step is to write a simple note asking for time to chat. Or, alternatively, we make a phone call (and leave a message, as nobody seems to answer their phones). But we can’t do either one without an e-mail address or a phone number.
You’d think that this would be basic information, provided on a government’s website, but often it’s not. It’s our guess that in these troublesome times that’s because people are concerned about security. But if security gets in the way of transparency, that’s an unfortunate tradeoff.
The next step for us is to work through a public information officer. But, with growing frequency, their contact information isn’t available either. We don’t get this at all, because if a public information officer can’t be reached by the public (including the press) then they’re not really able to do the jobs they’re paid for.
More and more, when we can’t find a direct route to communications offices, we’re guided to an online auto messaging system. That technology could work well, but only if someone actually responds to the message in a reasonably timely way. But at a rough estimate at least half the time, leaving an online message in this way is as effective as trying to communicate through smoke signals.
This scenario in which we leave the message but don’t get response to the message reminds us of a scene in Seinfeld, in which Jerry is trying to pick up a reserved rental car, only to discover that it’s not available. He says, “the car should be there, that’s why you have the reservation.” When the clerk rebuffs his complaints saying that she knows why they have the reservations, he snidely responds that he doesn’t think she does, saying” You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation.”
Fortunately for us, we have contacts of some sort in many of the states and localities about which we’re writing, and we can turn to them to help. But it’s our sense that many others don’t have that advantage and so wind up giving up altogether and simply quote directly from the website without being able to get background from a source who can explain things.
The result: People in the public sector often complain that researchers and writers don’t get things right. That may be true, but we think that wouldn’t be the case as frequently if there was a human being who could be reached.
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