As government has become bigger and more complex, it has become increasingly difficult for individual citizens to monitor its activities and finances. Cities used to provide law enforcement, firefighting, and basic infrastructure. Now they do detailed planning and provide all sorts of social services. States have seen their roles grow to include social services and environmental issues as well. School districts’ services have been pushed so far beyond education, understandably, they often seem to have forgotten their original mission – to educate children.
Meanwhile, citizens are busy people. It would be a herculean, and more than a full-time task, for any one person to monitor in any detail every government that reigns over a single address. These include city, county, and state governments as well as school boards, planning commissions, zoning commissions, the federal government with its plethora of agencies, various special districts, and any number of other regulatory agencies – some elected like the corporation commission, others appointed like the federal EPA.
This is why transparency in government is so important. It shouldn’t take extraordinary measures like hiring a consultant, lobbyist, or lawyer for a citizen to figure out how to communicate their views or figure out the basics of how their government is working. With today’s technology, the citizen should have at least as much access to government bodies, in real time, supposedly doing the public’s bidding, as tech corporations have to our daily lives.
Thus, it is puzzling (to say the least) how two Oklahoma state senators could vote against Senate Bill 946, which simply subjects the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) to the state’s Open Meetings Act. For the state’s top courts, the governor nominates new judges, but is restricted to a few names provided by the JNC. This is a crucial role in determining membership in one of the three classic branches of government in our system (executive, legislative, and judicial). It seems like a small order for citizens to have ready access to the deliberations, and votes, of such an important body. After all, public voting is pretty much required of every other deliberative, voting body in our government.
Voting of a public body on the public record doesn’t mean Oklahoma’s citizens have particularly ready access, though. As noted in another recent 1889 blog, Oklahomans don’t have ready efficient access to the legislature’s committee process. The Oklahoma State Board of Education recently held a “virtual” meeting entirely online. You’d think that Oklahoma’s State Department of Education would have some sophisticated access to the internet by now, after insisting that schools hold classes online for the last year, but you’d be wrong. There was no direct link to that meeting on the agency’s website that we could find, and hunting down the video feed seemed almost like a hacking exercise. Technically, they follow the rules by posting on Facebook, but unless you follow them that way all the time, they’re difficult to access.
I can go on. Even with the governor’s efforts to make Oklahoma’s finances more transparent, it’s difficult to get ready, specific information about agencies’ spending and activities. Call an agency and ask for information and you often get a reply that you have to file an open information request. Instead of the open information act serving as the last resort it was intended to be in order to force an agency to release information, it’s often used in Oklahoma as a needless hoop to jump through for information that should already be readily available, and often could be made immediately available to the requestor.
But then, maybe agencies are just doing what the legislature has demonstrated it wants. Several years ago, the legislature passed a law requiring the department of education to delete some school district spending information from its website, information that had been available for years. Somehow, it was beyond the ability of the agency or the legislature to note online that totals weren’t comparable to federal data regarding state education spending. The legislature appeared to assume concerned Oklahomans didn’t have the ability to read explanatory information, so data was simply denied them.
If Oklahoma’s state government is going to claim to be representative of its people, it should at least demonstrate an honest effort to include the people in decision making as much as possible. Until that happens, it looks suspiciously like Oklahoma is governed by an oligarchy rather than being governed in the manner of a true democratic republic.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.