Always ask how “good government” reforms affect access and influence.

Perhaps the most-challenging thing about good-government reforms is that, for the most part, we’re seeking to develop and implement them on the basis of a shallow political and organizational philosophy.  Consider legislation that would change Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA).  Some of the adjustments make sense, but I’m not so sure about this one:

The bill would reverse the longstanding exception for elected officials, whose communications — like emails — have not been subject to public scrutiny, in contrast with other public officials.

The proposal would continue to exempt elected officials’ correspondence with their constituents, but would make public other communications related to their official capacities.

I definitely see the appeal of having access to elected officials’ email.  At the end of the day, how they came to their positions isn’t as important as whether voters agree with them, but knowing who was advocating for or against policies can provide a shortcut for analyzing the results.

Nonetheless, making such communications public documents could easily dissuade people from sending them.  Saying that people with nothing to hide shouldn’t care ignores the many reasons people might prefer some expectation of discretion (intimidation, privacy, and more).

Anyway, people will care, whether they should or not.  That means those with direct access to politicians will benefit.  An email address is much easier to secure, for instance, than cell phone numbers or fundraising-event availability, and it can be less intimidating to send messages that way than in person or on the phone.

Regulating communication, in other words, will lead to less of it, which means worse, not better, representation.

The distinction from bureaucrats and other government employees is important.  In those cases, they’re supposed to be executing the public processes put in place by representatives.  Their decision-making should therefore be held to a higher standard of transparency.


Featured image by Joshua Cotton on Unsplash.

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