How do you get Floridians to care about state politics, let alone ethics reform?
The state’s millenials rank below the national average for civic engagement, and, in Miami, the general population ranks the lowest, according to studies by the National Conference on Citizenship. Florida not surprisingly, received a poor grade in the State Integrity Investigation for corruption risk.
WLRN-Miami Herald News, the NPR affiliate in South Florida, received a grant from Global Integrity to promote a discussion about ethics and transparency with a focus on the state legislature, which was considering several ethics and elections bills. We planned a series of online chats leading up to a live Town Hall with state legislative leaders. We also surveyed select listeners (and readers of The Miami Herald) on state politics and produced an online ethics game and short radio interviews about state policies.
Here are three takeaways from the project:
Promotion for an event on state politics, particularly one focused on ethics or the legislature, has to educate the listeners. Many Floridians do not know whom their state legislators are, according to surveys of readers of The Miami Herald and listeners of WLRN through the Public Insight Network. Few people follow the state legislature or understand the issues that are handled there as opposed to the federal or local government. Drawing an audience to the Town Hall required telling them about the impact the state government has in their lives. This kind of customized promotion involved grassroots outreach to organizations such as college clubs, business organizations, unions, service organizations and other civic groups.
Online text chats like Tweet-ups should generally be reserved for guests who are forthright and willing to keep the conversation going. In online forums where there may be audience comments posted between questions, it is easier for guests to avoid difficult topics. Moreover, as the organizers of the chat, we are concerned with losing the fickle online audience due to a static screen; in an audio interview, silence when a question is hanging does not register the same way. Influential political players can still make for great online guests: our discussion with a corporate legislative director was frenetic. But it’s important to have someone who is on-board to maintain a constant flow of conversation.
The laymen public does not focus on ethics reform likely because it is not outcome determinative. Rules about financial disclosure forms and lobbyist registration seem hyper-technical and abstract. So we tied the ethics discussions to other areas that typically garner more attention in Florida, such as charter school funding and property insurance reform. But when we asked the audience in emails before the Town Hall how transparency or ethics reform could help advance the policies they care about, few had any responses. The difficulty is that, for example, while many think that the state-run insurer is not accountable enough, people prefer to discuss arguments for and against a rate cap, as opposed to discussing the independence of the insurance regulator and whether agency staffers have recusal obligations. I suspect that this is because the benefits of transparency reforms are less direct. Merely because conflict of interest laws are put into place does not mean that their home insurance rates will go down. So despite having a Town Hall panel that included a journalist who has written extensively about the influence of lobbyists and the lack of transparency in Tallahassee and the chair of the state ethics committee who is interested in reform, the discussion at the event hardly delved into those issues except when it was the explicit focus.
But ultimately, doesn’t the mere fact that state legislative leaders were made to answer citizen questions contribute to increasing transparency and accountability?
— Elaine Chen
— Photo: Jessica Meszaros/WLRN
Elaine Chen is the interactivity producer at WLRN-Miami Herald News.