The most effective transparency tool is to be there, which is an admonition as true about the long-term health of a civic system as about a single meeting. This important lesson can be drawn from Erika Sanzi’s eye-opening (to her) experience of a Rhode Island Board of Education meeting concerning state involvement in the Providence school system:
Last night was a much anticipated meeting of the Rhode Island State Board of Education meeting—it’s impossible to imagine that those in charge did not expect a large crowd. The agenda included a vote on whether or not to allow Angélica Infante Green, the state education commissioner, to take over the Providence Schools. But somehow, nobody thought ahead and took the proactive step of a) ensuring there would be a livestream of the meeting and b) ensuring that there would be enough room capacity for everyone who made the effort to attend to actually be allowed into the room.
There were parents and other people who took the time to attend the meeting—and even pay top dollar for parking on the night of Hamilton’s opening—who were not allowed into the room.
Of course I sympathize with Sanzi in a “been there, sister,” kind of way, but some small portion of the criticism has to be allocated elsewhere — with an eye toward progress all around.
To some extent, one can understand why this board wouldn’t make provisions for a substantial audience, including by making the video available online in real time. So little of what government does attracts public attention that the transparency muscle can atrophy. That’s not an excuse, but it is a consideration. After years of preparing for audiences that never appear, it’s easy to stop going through the motions.
Sanzi’s point is well taken, that it was easy to predict that this meeting would attract a bigger-than-usual crowd. However, if a board regularly conducts its business before an audience in the single digits, exceeding the 188-seat capacity of its venue last night would seem unimaginable.
In other words, nothing will encourage government to be more audience-friendly than regularly having an audience. As we allow government to absorb more and more authority, the lack of public participation in its operation can be shocking, and in a democracy, that’s on all of us as much as it’s on elected and appointed officials.
Consider the stark contrast between this meeting and your typical town school committee concerning a contentious contract. The audience for those meetings would create a deliberately circus-like atmosphere. There might be union organizers in costumes. The board will hardly be able to proceed amidst the calls to move the meeting to a larger venue.
The problem is that, for the most part, parents and people in the community don’t want to disrupt and they don’t want to vilify. They want respectful cooperation to solve problems. They want government to work generally, not just to provide them with some special handout or benefit. That produces a much different behavior.