Last week, South Florida-based public radio WLRN hosted the Help Us Make Tallahassee Accountable At Session 2013 Town Hall, co-sponsored by Global Integrity as part of its outreach efforts based on the results of the State Integrity Investigation.
An enthusiastic crowd 600-strong (as you can see in the photo above) packed the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale to question state legislators Sen. Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale) and Senate Democratic leader Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), also Chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, on issues affecting Floridians and help shape the priorities of the upcoming legislative session, such as voting reform, education, healthcare, political ethics and transparency.
Mary Ellen Klas, Tallahassee bureau chief for The Miami Herald, sat on the panel along with legislators analyzing the issues as they were asked by the audience.
The enthusiasm of participants and willingness to convey to politicians their dissatisfaction with the status quo underscored the irreplaceability of traditional civic engagement efforts in an era of government transparency “hackathons” (or any other funder’s favorite tool du jour). When citizens talk, politicians are forced to listen.
The effects of a lack of transparency and accountability spill beyond the technocratic realm to having real consequences on the lives of citizens. Undisclosed special interests in Tallahassee (and beyond in other state capitals) can distort the outcomes of policy and legislation resulting in increased costs of healthcare or higher property insurance rates, for example.
Hence, citizen participation when discussing these issues is paramount and must be encouraged, as it is the most effective advocate for reform. It must be placed at the heart of the movement for greater transparency and accountability. We in the technology and transparency community occasionally lose sight of this.
We are yet to find a good substitute for the hard work of organizing and using the media to squeeze the right pressure points to bring about change.
This is especially true in places like Florida, where an enfeebled civic infrastructure prevents the latent demand for good governance to which politicians respond to from bubbling up. In fact, one of the major successes of the State Integrity Investigation was that it created a groundswell of local news reporting that accelerated reforms in states.
Eschewing flashy technological tools in favor of traditional public engagement, the Town Hall was a step in the direction of putting citizens at the center of calls for change. The key now is to build on the momentum created by the event by tapping into the efforts of local groups such as Integrity Florida doing great work and continuing to use the media effectively. If successful, perhaps this back-to-basics approach can be a blueprint for other areas of our work (and those of other organizations locally or internationally).
The State Integrity Investigation’s tag line is Keeping Government Honest. We don’t harbor any illusions about the effort involved to make that happen. Bending the arc of governance towards greater transparency, accountability, and openness will take more than simply publishing a study released every few years or creating a slew of open data apps. It will require the continual rejection of political apathy in favor of sustained civic participation. The process will be slow but the results worth it.
— Text and photo by Abhinav Bahl.