Open Government – What Is It, and How Do We Get It?

One of the most confusing things for voters is to decipher what politicians mean with our sound-bite positions and slogans.  What do they mean in terms of how the officeholder will actually behave in office?  A case in point is the idea of  “open government” and its corollary, “transparency”.

My opponent and I both support this idea in our campaign literature.  Though his early literature spoke of  “transparency, inclusion and openness”,  his current palm card references only “citizen engagement”.  In my palm card, I promise to “Conduct government ‘in the open’ with full public participation”.

But what does this actually mean in terms of the way City Council represents the will of the people? There is broad agreement that we want decisions made “democratically” but broad disagreement about what that means.  In a recent comment thread where the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s readers took off on this subject, long-time county commissioner and local kingmaker Leah Gunn stated one extreme of the concept neatly:

Under the United States Constitution, we live in a representative democracy. Political leaders are elected, or appointed by those who have been elected. If you want to become a “political leader”, you ought to run for office. I don’t believe that I would have been re-elected seven times, nor would Mayor Hieftje have been re-elected six times (and an upcoming seventh as he has no opposition as yet) if we did not somehow understand and represent the concerns of our constituents, as well as the city and county as a whole. You, as a member of the public, are always free to say what you please, but there is no guarantee that I, as an elected representative, have to agree with your point of view. That is called democracy.

The other extreme of the concept might be a citizen referendum on every decision.  This has a number of drawbacks, including the danger of  “majoritarianism” (also called the “tyranny of the majority”) and the fact that government probably would come to a grinding halt if an election were required for every decision.

I reject the notion (as expressed by Cmr. Gunn) that the only citizen decision is at election time.  I believe in continuous citizen interaction with government and that an openness to this is the basis of good government.   Here is what I said in a recent letter to absentee voters:

But more than that, we want our leaders to look to us in setting a future direction for the city, not a council that presents us with decisions already made. “Open government” should not be limited to a public hearing just before Council votes.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a really long time, dating back to my own tenure (1997-2004) as a county commissioner.  There are a number of mechanisms (public hearings for ordinances, for example), meant to solicit public input.  But those are often rather late in the day.  How do we ensure true citizen involvement in decisions while preserving the ability of elected officials to lead and take action?

Here are a couple of my posts on the subject:

Process, Procedure and Governance in Ann Arbor  (February 9, 2010) (Good comments from my opponent on this post which however seem to question the value of long public comment sessions.)

Public Process and Governance in Ann Arbor (July 23, 2011) (This post discussed the dispute between those who would allow elected bodies to proceed without much interference from the public and those who would engage the public; it clearly failed to anticipate Jane Lumm’s meteoric rise and election.)

What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?  (July 14, 2011) It really just asks the question.

I’ll detail my thoughts on how we should achieve these goals  over a series of posts.



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