Listen Up, Officials 4/20/94
By William Simonsen
Governmental officials tell us they honestly are trying to listen to the public.
Official listening is now so well controlled it is deaf.
Governments in general much more intersested in telling the public what to do than listening to its citizens.
Government officials have learned how to structure public debate so it can be easily controlled and ignored.
In the past when public meetings were held speakers on both sides of an issue would speak, debate, holler, call names and argue.
Democracy is and always has been a noisy, messy affair.
Sometimes public meetings on contentious issues would resemble a hockey game without officials.
But the system worked.
Win or lose, people wanted things settled.
Citizens were heard in a public forum. They had the chance to sway others to their point of view about public policy.
Most of our public institutions, from volunteer boards to the U.S. Senate, were designed to encourage public debate.
I think out founding fathers believed that the public airing of ideas tends to separate good ideas from bad. At the very least it allowed one side to hear opposing ideas, even it it disagreed.
I believe that citizens attended meetings — town meetings, city council meetings and school board meetings — in greater numbers in the past because the meetings were not only a place to be heard, but partly because were the best free entertainment in town.
Beginning several years ago many agencies stopped having public hearings where freedom of speech could be exercised.
The gagging of the public debate of issues was done in a very subtle way.
Arguing and debating became negative practices, frowned on by the very officials who said they wanted public input and comment on issues.
Many public meetings are no longer meetings where people get up before a crowd and speak.
Instead there are public forums where people may go and speak with public officials about issues that concern them.
They resemble cocktail parties without the booze. Citizens may exchange ideas with officials.
But public debate, the mechanism which allowed citizens to argue out issues with each other, is missing.
People representing both sides of an issue are free to speak with officials, but not each other.
Cocktail party forums are not real public meetings. They are exercises in how to pander to officialdom.
Officials call it reaching a consensus.
Consensus is highly overrated.
Consensus means officials have ignored a lesson they should have learned on the schoolyard — trying to please everyone never works.
Consensus kills new ideas. If new ideas are compromised enough in a vain attempt to please everyone they become an excuse for supporting the status quo.
An example of consensus of in action:
A public car has a flat tire.
Some people want to drive the car, so want to fix the flat.
Others don’t want to drive, so don’t want to fix the flat.
Instead of taking vote to see which side has the majority, officials attempt to reach a consensus on the flat tire issue.
An official decides, after a series of public forums, that in order to please both sides he will order the tire half filled with air.
Everyone should be happy because nobody lost.
But lost is the reality that no one can drive a car with a half-flat tire very safely or very far. Lost too is the reality that the car will be driven in spite of one groups desire not to have it driven.
Instead of one group losing, everyone lost.
Nothing changed, stagnation set in.
Government is in danger of drowning in a stagnant pool of consensus.
Officials brought the situation on themselves.
Officials learned not to make decisions in public, at public meetings.
Instead they take matters under advisement and announce their decision with press releases days or weeks later.
Yes, they will hear from parties on both sides of an issue after they announce their decision, but they no longer are required to stand up to the heat of a hostile audience booing at them.
Taking an issue under advisement means the official does not want to fell the public’s heat.
While some would defend the officials, saying they should not be required to take the abuse of an audience, I disagree.
A booing audience a message to the official that he may have made the wrong decision.
The citizens are trying to tell him something — he merely turns a deaf ear saying he should not be abused.
Officials deserve to be publicly booed when they make decisions that do not reflect the will of the people.
I do not trust democracy that is not messy and noisy.
It does not work.
Consensus does not breed satisfaction with government. it breeds distrust.