Democracy is an insider’s game.
But not just for the reasons you think – like political corruption and money in politics.
It’s also because of the incredible complexity in the way we govern and manage shared resources – and the stunning lack of access to meaningful information about how it all works.
Last week, I left a colleague’s office feeling very frustrated.
We were trying to discern the various funding streams available for homelessness service delivery in our community and parse out who is ultimately responsible for deciding how they are distributed to the different governmental and nonprofit service providers on the ground in Toledo, Ohio. This includes federal money distributed right to our city, federal money distributed to our state, state money, and local money.
Why were we looking for this information? As foundation program staff, we help distribute grants in our community from a pooled endowment set up by donors many years ago. It’s our job to know how the public money works, so we can help our board make decisions about how our little pot can be best utilized in Toledo, Ohio to bring about positive change.
I left that colleague’s office throwing my hands up in disgust.
My team and I determined that we simply cannot figure it out it using publicly available information.
It was so important for me to try to do this through publicly available information, because I wanted to see what it would be like for an average taxpayer who wanted to figure out where his or her tax dollars actually went.
It should be possible, right? There is no shortage of information.
We reviewed nonprofit tax filings 990s.
We reviewed local City Council materials.
We reviewed federal HUD documents.
We reviewed the many documents uploaded to the website of the local Homelessness Board (the organization charged with creating a community plan to address homelessness, and which plays a key role in the distribution of federal grant money).
Why couldn’t we figure it out?
Well, there is jargon used all over the place. There is inconsistent terminology. There are no standards for how you talk about things across federal, state or local agencies. It’s difficult to untangle the different fiscal years referenced in different documents. And there are just masses and masses of information – so much that it is unworkable to consume and attempt to interpret without weeks for free time. Try tracing federal money issued in a big chunk to the state, and then figure out how that trickles down to the local government, which ultimately helps it get to a small nonprofit who is housing opioid-addicted homeless mothers, and then multiply that by the about 30 different local entities that provide services. And that’s just one of the paths that money can take. There are many others. No wonder nobody knows how to fix homelessness.
Before I got into the field of philanthropy, I worked as an attorney. What this situation feels like to me, is a commonly used tactic for the discovery process in corporate litigation. Discovery is the court-monitored process in a civil lawsuit whereby each side can request information from the other. There is this strategy often used by large, corporate law firms, whereby they respond to a discovery request by dropping a mega-amount of documents on the other side. Think “2 million documents.” The incriminating facts that the other side is looking for may very well be in there, but they’ll need an army of lawyers to read through them all.
That’s what I feel like has happened when I am trying to untangle public information about homelessness service delivery.
I had to do what I didn’t want to do. I had to turn to specialists – the few people in our local community, who have spent years in the trenches and who know how it all works. A retired executive from the local United Way. A city housing official. I was able to make a few calls, buy a few coffees and get the answers that I was seeking. I met up with those few people who have worked in the sector for years, and they were able to do their best to explain it all to me.
And that makes me very sad.
You shouldn’t have to turn to a specialist to be able to explain our government to you. Taxpayers should be able to trace the dollars. They should be able to easily figure out who to hold accountable when systems are not working. When we see problems that we want to fix, should we be turning to local officials, state officials, or federal officials? Executives/administrators or legislators? How are local decision-making bodies involved in the process? When do they meet? How can they be influenced?
If you are a local taxpayer frustrated with homelessness and you want to see something change, how would you interact with your democratic republic in order to make that happen?
Democracy has become an insider’s game, and it’s not just due to money in politics and political corruption. It’s also because of this incredible complexity we face in our civic environments, and our incredibly poor handling of the information that these systems produce.
We don’t have anyone helping citizens break down the facts of how our public systems work, so that we can form real judgments about them. Instead, we have simple red or blue slogans that people latch on to, based on feelings and beliefs. Things like “big government = bad” or “more social welfare programs = good.” The truth is that neither is typically right. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The Framers of the Constitution believed you needed an informed electorate to be able to make it all work. When we have a public that has to rely increasingly on feelings, instead of facts, because we haven’t figured out how to manage the facts of governance, you have a public that is very easy to influence and a status quo that is very easy to preserve for those who benefit from it.
If we are ever going to make it work better, We The People, are going to have to step up. We have to stop accepting a status quo in which we largely leave the work of governance to the professionals. We have to move into our role as active participants in democracy, do more to hold public officials accountable and roll up our sleeves to improve conditions in our communities.
To help us do this, we are going to have to create different kinds of organizations and methods to manage and interpret civic information – information intermediaries, for lack of a better term. Anyone can see that the current media structure and the current education system isn’t getting that done. These information intermediaries can help us with:
- New tools to help us grapple with the public information and to understand our systems
- Educational methods for both youth and adult learners that generate a higher level of civic knowledge in the population at large
- Technology to help us visualize, simplify and debate public finance
- Governments and nonprofits becoming better sharers of information
- The technical work of creating open data policies, data sharing agreements, information standards and transparency in government
What my hope is that 50 years from now, we’ll look back on this time and think that we were all just in the infancy of a new era. Many of us feel as if we are at a crossroads with our democracy. It will either get much, much worse – or, we have an opportunity to make it much, much better, and more functional and fair for all people. I would prefer to think that we’re at the beginning of a new period which leverages information technology and the power of networks to take democratic practice and civic involvement far beyond where it has ever been.
Despite the growing lack of confidence in democracy, there really couldn’t be a more “now” form of government. In theory, at least. It’s open, it’s collaborative, it values diversity, it relies on networks, it’s non-hierarchical. There’s no reason for us to be getting down on democracy, especially since we now have better tools and technologies that should be able to help us take it to the next level.
I am optimistic about initiatives like The Ballmer Group’s USA Facts website, which aims to bring the public into real contact with the facts of public spending. I’m also hopeful about similar government initiatives like Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel’s Ohio Checkbook initiative.
But, we’ll need to do much more.
Working in philanthropy, I have no doubt that people care about their communities – which flies in the face of the commonly held view that people are not civically engaged. But I’m tired of people coming into my office with ideas to create new homeless shelters or nonprofits that provide gloves to the homeless when what we need is the policy work to remedy the obstacles and dysfunction in our existing systems that keep us from eliminating homelessness in the first place.
They reason why most do-gooders don’t start with systems change is that they have never learned about how these complex public/private systems work, and it doesn’t occur to them that they could potentially work in much better ways. And when the systems themselves create obstacles to that understanding, we have a real problem on our hands.
That’s why I believe the first step is to make democracy less of an insider’s game – is by creating ways to better manage our information about it.