Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Accountability

photo credit: The Constitution of the United States: Wikimedia-Public Domain


"The most important thing to hear in communication is what isn't said." 
                                                                                                 - Peter Drucker

Some time ago, with the aim of getting attention in a lunchtime talk to a group of public relations folks, I began by sharing a comment of one of their clients when he learned of my scheduled talk. "P.R." he said, "is hokum and deception. It's the preserve of charlatans and magicians!!"

After I delivered this "gem" to the PR practitioners, amid the unexpected cheers and applause that they responded with, I quickly modified how to talk with them about communication.

We are in an era when "P.R." doesn't represent Public Responsibility, if it ever did.

Among the serious challenges facing citizens in representative democracies are the 24/7 news cycle and huge paid propaganda. For even the most responsible elected representatives, "PR" (the public relations version) is a greater magnet than ever before - especially at election time. On the television talk shows, we occasionally see this in an overly appreciative glance, and sometimes over-effusive thanks, given by an elected representative to a television host.

The PR of Congressional Hearings and investigations and follow-up interviews do get tiresome when there's no result. All that endless handwringing, the "dodges" and refinements might provide media moments for some elected representatives. Too often, these confuse the essential matter, namely securing remedy of a crooked action.

Electors should expect accountability for corruption and malfeasance - including punishment, intervention and removal where appropriate. Now, not later.

It's time to recognize that sticking solely with the strategies of trading words and pursuing legal messes does not serve representative democracy. It's important to recognize that fighting bad actors on these terms, where they're smart, will rarely work. It's time to turn off funds and resources to bad actors - not just talk about it on TV.  

What democracy needs more than ever is not PR talk, but genuine callings to account. The Westminster system long ago formalized the role of the Opposition. Each government minister (cabinet member) has a well-briefed competent counterpart as a "Shadow" cabinet member in the opposition party. The role includes keeping the cabinet member as honest as possible on specifics, as well as being up-to-speed when the government changes. Doesn't always work as desired, but it helps.

In the "Washington system," it looks like the checks and balances that were designed thoughtfully by the Founders for different times only work, like most rules and norms, in some circumstances.

Today, it's plain to a near-sighted bandicoot, that we're not in such a circumstance. Substantial changes to laws and norms are needed.

In the meantime, with so much awry, as the ever-continuing revelations and memes show, the challenge is what to do and when.

Anytime confusion rules, it's best to go back to basic principles. A basic principle of democracy is "A public who listens and speaks out." When you're fed up with the level of preoccupation with PR, here are some thoughts to help set your action plan, to let it be known that there is a public who cares:

1. Do get personal (nicely) with your elected representatives - NOW is the time; none better than during election campaigns. Send a letter and make a phone call (not an email or tweet!) to question what your representative is doing about what you care about. In the lead up to an election, once a week on different issues might keep attention, if you're comfortable with this (this person does work for you). Ask for a specific answer each time!

 2. If you're a joiner, join an action group that actually puts pressure and expects results from elected representatives. United States citizens are still in the top levels of volunteer participation (however you measure it). The 2018 Volunteering in America report found that 77.34 million adults (30.3 percent) volunteered through an organization that year.

3. Make the effort to become familiar with and use Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation to learn what government is really doing on the matters you care about.

Here's a quick list of some countries with FOI legislation and when it was enacted:
United States, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands (all by 1967)
Australia, New Zealand (in 1982)
Canada (in 1983)
United Kingdom (2000 to 2001)
Scotland (2005)

Elected representatives might eventually recognize that "the people" know more and expect better. 

Perhaps the norm of public handwringing will shift to getting results