The Idea Mill: Facts As An Endangered Species

Published: Wed 21 Mar 2007 01:52 PM
The Idea Mill: Facts As An Endangered Species
By Editor Sam Smith
One of the characteristics of government at every level is how much harder it has become to get basic facts. Washington, DC, for many years had an annual report called Indices that was jammed with factual information about what was happening in the city. After the federal government put the city into a form of colonial receivership and a purportedly reform administration was named, the book became one of the first things to disappear.
At the other end are the well documented assaults on public information by the Bush administration. While there is much variation in between, it remains true that many aspects of governance are becoming conveniently complicated and obscured so that no one - including the media - really know what's going on.
Here's one example: once you could tell what a city was doing in the housing field by how much public housing there was. Now the number and complexity of subsidies is enormous and no one really knows what is happening. As a result it doesn't get reported.
What if you had a generally accepted standard developed my reporters and public interest groups that defined just what information people deserved to know about housing? It might include
- Number of public housing units
- Number of subsidized housing units identified by name of subsidy, average percent of cost subsidized and number of units
- Number of subsidized housing units provided by non-profit groups identified average percent of cost subsidized, and number of units
- Distribution of subsidized units by ward or other subdivision
- Number of persons on waiting list for subsidized or public housing.
- Average length of wait
- Number of persons in city who can't afford the median rent
- Ten year trend in all of the above.
At first the standards could be put forth by a group like the Society of Professional Journalists or a consortium of journalism schools or public interest groups. It could be initially done at the local, state or national level. It would not be long, I suspect, before you would find candidates for mayor, governor and even president bragging that they observe these standards.
There could also be annual ratings of these governments as to how well they are doing.
One journalist - formerly with Jack Anderson - wrote me:
I think this is an incredible idea. As an old journalist who came up through the ranks covering City Hall, the County Commission, the School Board, the police, etc., etc. I am perpetually stunned by the total lack of information the local newspaper provides these days about where public funds are going. (and even more stunned at the total passivity of the readers) This kind of "open government" reporting used to be routine, and started to be obfuscated (I believe) in the Reagan years. Now it's gotten so murky that none of the young journalists even know what real reporting actually looks like. . . I think it's really about returning to what the original standard of openness in a democratic society started out to be and continued to be for two centuries. It's really only in the last few decades that it's fallen by the wayside, in my opinion. I think that your idea of getting urban journalists together to compile a list of essential facts every city should provide its citizens would be a fabulous reminder to every community of what the relationship between the local government and the community is supposed to be. Such a dialogue would then naturally become an issue in all campaigns.
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