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Open Government, Healthier Communities?

by Scott Bittle

Friday, March 4th, 2011

A new study suggests a more transparent government may lead to a more engaged community. In Public Agenda's experience, there's no question that an open government is crucial to civic engagement – but more information alone won't do the job.

In an intriguing study of three cities (San Jose, Philadelphia and Macon, Ga.,) the Pew Internet and American Life project found that people who believe their local government is open with them are more likely to feel good about the state of their community overall. In fact, they're more likely to feel empowered, and those who feel more empowered are more likely to be civically active, Pew concluded.

The conclusions make sense on many levels. Certainly, you can't have an engaged public without an open government. People don't engage with a cipher, or rush out to offer their services to a brick wall.

But it's important not to fall into one of the most common misconceptions about public opinion – that more information, all by itself, will help the public make better decisions.

In their book Toward Wiser Public Judgment, Public Agenda's Dan Yankelovich and Will Friedman argue this is one of the most common mistakes in the policy world. "The media often treat people as if they were attentive experts who can take in reams of data, rather than inattentive citizens with busy lives who are more interested in the values underlying policy choices and the practical consequences of action," they write.

The public has a "Learning Curve" on complicated problems, and while a lack of information can derail it, so can lots of other things: a lack of practical choices, mistrust, denial, or just a lack of urgency about the problem. All those things can get in the way even when there's plenty of information available.

Understanding the public’s learning curve is critical because a sense of empowerment is not really the critical problem in today’s public square. As the authors point out, one of the challenges about our political discourse is that too often “intensity of conviction [acts] as a substitute for sound judgment.” The recent calls for a less violent and more civil and constructive public debate in the wake of the Arizona shootings are a direct reflection on this.

Yes, people need information. In the 21st century, there's no reason – and frankly, no excuse – for governments to drag their feet when it comes to being more open about their operations with citizens. But the public also need a way to sort that information out and make sense out of it. The "put it out there and let people figure it out" strategy is a good start—as the Pew research shows. But it’s only a part of what citizens need in order to solve problems and isn't going to do the job by itself. Stronger, more engaged communities come about through more and better information, yes, but they also require richer opportunities for real dialogue, deliberation and participation.




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