A Facebook for Federal Bureaucrats, or What Real Government Transparency Might Look Like

LikeWatching Aneesh Chopra rather lamely defend the Obama Administration’s record on its use of information technology on The Daily Show this week, I was struck by the same problem that Stewart was struggling with — the very slow pace of change, and the unmistakeable disappointment that has set in concerning the early promises that were made by the incoming Obama folks way back when about sunshine in government.

More recently, the debacle of the Obamacare rollout became Exhibit A of government’s incompetence at a time when faith in government to take action about Things That Matter was the issue being debated. Of course, those serious hiccups have now been more or less resolved, and millions have used the Web and other means to enroll in the much-demonized health care coverage.

Although not without its flaws, this is a major advance, both for the country and for covered families and individuals. Perhaps one day soon (though presumably not before we all re-live it via the next election cycle), these significant positives will block out our collective trauma over that massive technical fail.

Yet the overall picture — including Stewart’s example of rampant mismanagement of the databases on veterans at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs — is dismal. While some groups at the state and federal level like the Sunlight Foundation continue to make progress on interactive tools for impacting proposed legislation in Congress or a statehouse, the federal agencies today remain largely impenetrable fortresses, accessible to lobbyists and others who know the ropes, but inexplicably mysterious for most Americans.

The federal departments, commissions and agencies preside over the details of all the rules that most affect the lives of millions of Americans, deciding everything from auto and consumer safety standards to environmental and business rules. While they do have to conduct a public process (called notice-and-comment rulemaking) on the most significant decisions, much of their internal workings remain shielded from any real public disclosure. Only the true Washington cognoscenti — and the allies they inform — are aware of the timing of rules and the process for commenting.

The text of these proposed rules, and I’ve suffered through more than 70 of them over the years, are written in dense bureacrat-ese, typically with lamentable passive voice and ample application of jargon. Although they all live on-line at regulations.gov, understanding the issues and what’s at stake in particular decisions is a form of inside baseball that is so complex that it almost always gives organized corporate stakeholders an outsized role in decisions.

Even if the public at large would benefit from a decision, they are simply unlikely to know about or be able to join the debate in a manner that evens the playing field. Underpowered non-profits like the ones I’ve worked for struggle along, staging battles on principle and always aware of their limited resources and the political realities.

Of course, the public’s larger interest could be represented by the Congress, which doles out assignments to the agencies. And sometimes a very strongly written law does result in a rule that is not too watered down by the inevitable industry response. But many of the best laws were enacted by a prior version of Congress, often several decades ago or longer, and some are showing their age.

Yet advocates are, for the most part, too frightened by the politics and dysfunction of the current Congress to suggest that they be re-written. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance limitations, the money of corporate donors speaks even more loudly on the Hill today than it does within the agencies.

Of course, for better or worse, the agencies also answer to an elected official — the President. They could be much more vigorous defenders of the public interest if allowed to be. Although they must heed the language handed to them by Congress, within those terms, they have tremendous power and discretion over their enforcement activities and priorities. But whenever they do wield power in ways that business interests find unreasonable (often with rules that merely require business to internalize the costs of their actions), the conventional script allows them to be accused of unaccountability, facelessness and all the rest.

It occurs to me, then, that the real goal of government’s use of information technology should be to give the government a face. Or Facebook. Or Facebook-like tool, without ads or annoying apps.

The real information gap in Washington is not about databases that should be shared by federal agencies, though that should certainly be addressed forthwith. The problem is that the map of influence and power — identifying the decision makers, their powers, and the ways to engage them — is utterly obscure except to an elite few.

Today, agencies often hide their internal processes behind an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that covers agency “deliberation.” This is a legal privilege that can be — though need not be — invoked if a federal agency wants the freedom to think about an issue inside the government before coming to a decision. The notion has some merit, as we do want agencies to think.

But it would be no impediment to require the federal agencies that conduct public business to publish information on a Web site about which employees within an agency are tasked with which decisions, and to put all of their meetings and meeting notes with outside parties also on-line as a routine matter. The expertise of government employees, their backgrounds and work history could be included in this “map” of who is thinking about what. Not everyone would need to be listed, of course, just those with decision-making power. And perhaps there’s other information that would belong on these pages as well.

Simply put, it should be far simpler for ordinary citizens to understand the arcane workings of an agency on an issue of concern to them, and to contact the right official if they have relevant information. When I worked on automotive safety, one of the best sources of information were retired engineers, a few of whom had worked for automakers and knew how their decisions happened. They sometimes had extraordinary amounts of information about industry’s bad habits, but no one to tell. A truly transparent government structure might similarly elicit troves of surprising and useful information from sources that remain unidentified today.

Unlike combining millions of government records, this system could be built fresh across the agencies as new hires are made. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that most of our government’s civil servants are nobly trying to do the right thing. It would be of great assistance to our tired political debate about the “role of government” if the agencies looked less like blobs and more like real people doing their jobs — you know, the ones that Congress (and therefore, we the people) gave them.

With the unleashing of the money rules for elected officials thanks to SCOTUS, it’s also our next best line of defense. But the agencies today are under siege, and have been for decades. Figuring out how to engage the public far more directly in their important decisions would better equip them to stand up for their legal principles, and defend the actual public interests at stake. Who knows? It might even lead to some stronger health, safety and environmental rules, thereby showing government at its best.

The agencies have breathed life into accomplishments ranging from the Clean Water Act to the rules that took lead out of gasoline. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes (see No Child Left Behind), but we should be able to talk to them when they are screwing it up more directly. We need them to succeed and be understood, and not to be so easily demonized. As long direct conversations with agency officials are generally reserved for issue experts and corporate lobbyists, the democracy part of our project remains an up-hill fight both inside and outside their walls.

So innovate on that, please. Information transparency is nice — all well and good. Figuring out a workable, clear system to create influence transparency, however — now that’s a ticket for institutional transformation.

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Parenting Through the Fog: 8 of My Personal “Truths”

IMG_0505 No one can tell you what kind of parent to be. Instead, it’s a long performance, consisting of attempts, failures, mistakes, experiments, accidents, snips, scrapes and sniffles and — when you’re lucky — unexpected harmony and delirious puffs of joy.

So it’s with that humility in mind that I offer up some insights from the scads of parenting books I’ve perused over the past few years. Through the mist of what made sense to me (an arbitrary lens if ever there was one), I have managed to discern what I could now call a sketchy and ever-subject-to-revision Parenting Approach. Taking all this uncertainty into account, below are a few guideposts from the research I’ve managed to get under my belt that I use currently to light my way.

Some of them may surprise any loyal reader who knows I’m a sucker for fuzzy crafts, because they are not very fuzzy-wuzzy. I’m a strict-ish parent, actually, on matter of behavior. And I’ll be the first to admit that any or all of the below may not work for your family. Every child and parent is different. If one lesson is clear, it’s that paying close attention to our particular child trumps a set of written instructions, any day.

IMG_0503Nonetheless, and for whatever they may be worth to you, I find the following insights both helpful and difficult, often at the same time:

1) Permissive parenting is actually harmful. Several major studies are really almost unanimous on this point: Authoritarian parenting — or overly strict parenting — is actually less damaging than parenting that is overly permissive. Authoritarian (though not abusive) parents generally communicate a lesson to kids that they are cared for and safe, while permissive parents, despite perhaps their best intentions, can leave kids wondering if they are the ones in charge and why. But of course authoritarian parenting also does damage: it undermines self-esteem, and can create life-long scars. The goal is a middle ground: authoritative parenting, which communicates love while holding its ground and conveying firm and consistent expectations for behavior.

2) Emotional intelligence — including hard-to-define and achieve qualities like character, grit, and capacity for failure — will be more important to your child’s success than IQ. Put down the flashcards! What will more likely matter to your child is whether they have the social skills to succeed and the inner resources to keep trying. And parents of young children should not wait for a child to mature to work on these essential skills, because the neural networks in the brain that form the infrastructure for emotional reasoning basically take shape by six years old. Even if you’ve missed this window, though, programs providing coaching to troubled adolescents show that new habits like resilience and resourcefulness can be taught, albeit with a lot of work to catch up to their peers.

3) Attachment is only half the job. It is indisputably critical that parents create an emotional bond with their child, called attachment. This is formed by early and attentive responsiveness to the needs of a new infant. This foundation of trust and mutual love, however, is insufficient by itself as a child grows. The purpose of attachment — to make children feel sufficiently safe in the world — can be undermined if parents do not also encourage and foster responsibility, independence and sound judgment. Being endlessly attentive and nurturing to a needy three-year-old is a recipe for both exhausted parents and bratty kids.

Balancing attachment by making space to say a respectful version of “no” to children is critical. Indeed, helping them create a robust capacity for emotional self-regulation is essential. Emotional regulation is also important to cognitive development, because the more time that kids spend in an agitated state, the less time they have for calm receptivity to input from the world.

4) Too much praise can send the wrong signal and cut off the conversation. This is a hard one, given our need to recognize our child’s achievements as part of our own: empty words like “good job” come out of my mouth far more often than I would like. Substituting acknowledgment for appraisal is a subtle but important shift that can mostly fill in when kids ask us. For example, by saying, “I see you.” instead of “good work.” Or even just engaging in a real conversation by observing the facts: “You’ve used a lot of yellow here.” Praise is a conversation-stopper, after all, leaving nothing more to say, while facts leave room for more facts, and for the child to play observer as well. If you must praise, complimenting effort rather than result is a better thing to say: “You are working so hard on that!”

You can also subtly ask your child to internalize their own framework for self-appraisal by focusing on the child’s feelings rather than the parents: “Did that make you feel proud?” Asking questions and making comparisons to their own past can be another way to engage: “Was that scary?” “Did you climb that part faster than you did yesterday?”

IMG_05075) Our own emotional responses — even negative ones — can be put to use. We  generally do not do kids a favor when we overlook confrontational or obnoxious behavior and ask ourselves, as parents, to exhibit super-human restraint. Irritating behavior can sometimes be a good way to understand when a child needs more limits. So long as we are not clinically depressed, super-tired, sick, or otherwise overly prone to irritability, our own response to our child’s behavior can be a sound guide for imposing a set of (age-appropriate and individualized) expectations for that child.

I also believe this to be the case: As parents, we will spend a significant part of our lives in conversation with our child, and it helps with the sometimes-oppressive tedium of parenting if we enjoy more of this time, rather than less.

While we don’t need to lash out, certainly, and a calm response is preferable to an angry one, noticing our child’s behavior is a clue that something needs to change. A child who is constantly stirring the pot, behaving selfishly or taunting, who often lacks emotional and bodily self-control and can never take no for an answer, is a child who will have difficulty forming friendships, and who may repeatedly “check out” of opportunities for calm attention and learning. These emotionally sensitive and volatile children may need more sensible and consistent boundaries than other kids in order to thrive. At the same time, that child may need more connection with the parent in order to tolerate the new boundaries, so both limits and time together will be critical.

Of course, a rapid uptick in outbursts in an otherwise calm child may also provide a valuable clue that something is wrong, and require investigation. One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, calls on parents to look for signs of soul-sickness and approach these with the gentle healing we might a cold. Again, this kind of judgment call has to come from knowing our kid and what’s normal and needed for them.

IMG_05026) Our specific language and choices as parents matter a ton to the development of our child. The brain is surprisingly elastic and supple, and is so deeply responsive to parenting cues that the brains of children actually resembles those of their parents in scans. So what kinds of intentional communication with them should we have?

Words that seem oddly “corporate” have sometimes been helpful to me, because they do the work of making a difference of opinion seem less personal: “My agenda here is to get you to put on your clothes, while your agenda is to play. What can we do?” or “I’m trying to understand your goals here.” They can also be useful for asking for more resilience and generating options: “That seemed like a good strategy. What would be another one?” “What’s your plan to fix this problem?” “I would like you to make a different choice.”

Picture-language that paints a clear image of concrete aspirations for behavior also works well for me: “I would like you to have a big, open, generous heart with your friends.”Or, after a fall: “I hope you have a scrambly time at the playground, and climb all over the jungle gym like a brave spider.” And specifically encouraging them to overcome frustration, even through time-worn clichés like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” can be helpful to establish a “mental voice” for old-fashioned stick-to-itive-ness.

Rather than barking orders, owning our own perspective is more respectful of a child’s still-developing sense of agency. While it can feel a bit bulky, saying: “I am asking you to do put that down” in lieu of “put that down!” is what I aim for. Similarly, saying “I don’t like it when you stand on your chair because I’m concerned you might fall and hurt yourself, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” clues kids on your motives and role. Even owning our more unpleasant emotions can be helpful: “I’m irritated that you are doing that right now, as I have asked you two times to make a different choice.” (Just don’t be surprised when your child also is able to identify that she is “irritated” by something you do!)

Using please and thank you when making a request is also important in my view, though some books advise against it. As I want my child to use good manners, I personally feel it’s only fair to use them myself when addressing her.

IMG_05067) Getting out of a child’s way is sometimes the best thing we can do. All of us have experienced a state that scientists now call “flow:” a state of productive engagement in which we feel relaxed and time seems to disappear. Creating an environment in the home which allows children to play in a way that facilitates this kind of moment — and being sure not to interrupt them when it is happening as cooperative or solo play — is essential to putting them in touch with their deepest capacities for self-engagement.

This is the main reason why we limit screens in our house. Although we make some exceptions for special circumstances (getting her to sit still for nail-cutting, for example, or for travel on a plane), in general there are no videos or TV at home. This has been helpful with our busy days, as it forces all of us to relax, to have play time or reading or craft time instead.

Some of the job is just creating open space for children to self-direct their activities. Being sure to leave kids alone when they are “in flow” is important. It’s also important, to belabor this point from above a bit, that when they (inevitably) ask for us to look over what they’ve created, we respond with something deeper than a slap-dash pat on the head. The conversation should lead naturally to what could be a follow-on project, and thereby provide them with the next compelling invitation to enter this particular window onto human happiness.

8) Bargaining is bad — except when it isn’t. Capitulation during a meltdown or due to the fear of a meltdown is not a good idea, as it provides the wrong incentives for emotional outbursts. In our house, we think that never bending due to the intensity of an emotional response is sound policy. And reasoning with a child in the midst of a meltdown or temper tantrum, when their responses are coming from their lizard brain, is asking the impossible, because their executive functioning has literally been cut off by the emotional surge to those flight-or-fights parts of their primitive brain.

On the other hand, allowing problem solving that engages the executive functioning of the brain — called the cerebral cortex — is good. So when a child is calmly suggesting alternatives that also meet the objectives of the parent (“Can I take two bites of carrot instead of broccoli?”), that is to be encouraged. This kind of logical negotiation is a basic skill, and may provide a way out before a melt-down gets triggered, even though at times it may drive me a bit batty.