For several weeks now I have been teaching a class called “Democracy Lab.” The class reflects the hypothesis that increasing both dialogue and critical thinking skills will improve our democracy. As we discussed the current state of our politics, two key themes emerged, both relating to the information available to voters. The first theme related to information validation and transparency, and the second to information and mechanisms for holding elected officials accountable.
With the constant push of information – some factual, some made-up, and much of it distorted – it can be hard to sort through the many conflicting accounts of what is happening and why. This often results in the adoption of a partisan lens, simple tuning out, or over-reliance on what “feels right”. As noted in a prior post, we need new filters. Simply voting once every four years is not a structure in which the citizen voice is easily heard and interpreted.
Our class generated a range of ideas on how government might work with its citizens to improve information flows and ultimately accountability. Some were relatively simple, such as requiring the president to sign a HIPPA waiver allowing key information on health to be disclosed and disseminated in a prescribed way that took into account national security concerns. Others were more complex. These included the following, all of which are worthy of further dialogue:
+ Develop a rating system for different types of reporting so citizens could more easily sort through information — unrated sites would be a form of rating. Something like this is emerging for on-line reporting. The class didn’t think though that these ratings could be left to the market, or to elected or appointed officials. One approach identified for engendering trust especially on issues requiring technical or scientific knowledge would be for known professional organizations and civic groups to appoint representatives to an oversight board, and the board be funded through a mix of private and public donations.
+ Require a “state of the union” exit report that follows a prescribed form, is audited by the GAO, and that is disseminated widely. This could be modeled on the “exit memos” that President Obama had each agency prepare. These were unfortunately ignored by much of the media and few in the public were even aware of their existence or content. The exit memo from the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, included a review of what had been learned fighting the H1N1, Ebola and Zika viruses, and recommended the establishment of a new Public Health Emergency Fund, warning that “a ready supply of financial resources is necessary for rapid response to emerging public health threats and would save lives, save money, and protect America’s health security.” How might widespread public knowledge of that warning have affected public support for the tax cuts that occurred in the next few years? Members of our class would have welcomed wider dissemination and discussion of these memos and their recommendations.
+ Create a public dashboard administered by the GAO that allows the public to easily track progress (or lack of progress) on key legislation and the promises made as that legislation was pushed through, and also track diversion of funds from their budgeted purposes. Class members agreed that when public money is being spent the public deserves to know whether the anticipated benefits materialize or whether that money is being diverted to another purpose and why.
Our founding fathers viewed an informed electorate as a safe-guard for our democracy and our freedoms. We need better dissemination of not just data and opinions but also the historical and current context of key issues and the trade-offs to be made as we apply limited funds to meet a range of needs. This would equip voters to better inform themselves and to hold their elected representatives accountable for both the decisions they make and the narratives they share.