Trust is essential for society’s institutions — especially government — to function, yet it’s in short supply today.
Consider the ongoing pandemic, where the people of the United States remain skeptical about pronouncements from their government. It does not help the situation when the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are difficult to follow and, seemingly, make little sense.
From 10 days isolation for people infected with coronavirus, we are down to a five-day recommendation, with advice for folks to keep the masks on after leaving isolation for at least another five days. There’s no advice to take a COVID-19 test to make sure the virus is gone, either.
It’s clear there is recognition that the fast-spread omicron variant could bring society to a halt. So many people are infected that 10 days off work or out of school could mean shutting schools, not having hospital workers or other essential employees. There was little discussion of the balancing factors, however, as the CDC released the new recommendations. Tests are in short supply, too. Requiring tests for people to leave isolation might be a difficult hurdle to climb because of the shortage.
Guidelines throughout the pandemic have been a balancing act — using the latest scientific research to protect public safety while at the same time, issuing recommendations people will follow. As one Atlantic article pointed out, “Briefer isolations, if managed safely, could help keep the country afloat.” Explaining this openly could help restore trust in the battered CDC.
That openness is a failing of governments from the federal government down to the local level.
In New Mexico, we have seen state government successfully sued over its failure to provide an adequate education to certain at-risk students in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. Now, the Public Education Department is failing to deliver enough information about what progress it has made in addressing the District Court’s findings. The state is also late with its comprehensive plan designed to address Yazzie-Martinez concerns.
Rather than fight requests for information, this is a time for New Mexico to be as open as possible. Put material online, available to one and all, so that plaintiffs can track progress without even having to make requests for information. The only way to show compliance is to open up.
It’s not just about placing documents where individuals can find them, either.
Sometimes government officials fail constituents when they decline to answer questions or funnel information. Many agencies — both at the state and local levels — want questions to be screened by public information officers. Police departments are notorious for declining to answer questions. There’s always a reason. The case is under investigation. It’s a personnel issue. The result is that citizens are left in the dark.
Our own Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education has adopted a “norm” through which public pronouncements go through the president of the board only. Other board members don’t speak, meaning constituents don’t know what they think. Taxpayers are denied a vigorous public discussion outside of meetings and elected officials don’t have to answer constituent questions publicly. It’s no way to do business.
Shutting down discussions, failing to explain decisions, keeping public information private — all of those are ways the government lets citizens down. Transparency, on the other hand, increases trust. More institutions should try it.