Friday, 31 July 2009 00:00
In this morning’s daily paper, an official at a local agency refused to comment on a situation and really ticked me off. If you are an elected or appointed official, start practicing ways to avoid saying that you have no comment. “No comment” will never do anything but make a situation worse.
I see this more and more. Between July 1 and July 24 of this year, the phrase “declined to comment” or “refused to comment” appeared in at least 41 Newsday articles involving state or local government. That’s almost twice as many refusals or declinations in articles from July 1999.
That’s 41 missed opportunities to tell a story. Every media inquiry can be a little lesson in life, an opportunity to explain, enlighten and advocate, even if at first glance the situation seems a bit uncomfortable. You may not get a second chance.
This is not to say that politicians should have something to say about everything, all the time. Please, no. But in a crisis or serious situation you can shed light without going into specific details that must still be sifted out by investigation or litigation. “While I can’t delve into the specific evidence still being collected, we are determined to put a stop to any ritual human sacrifices occurring in any of our departments.” Show that someone in authority cares.
Most people in public life don’t give enough credit to the people they serve. In many ways, the public is more sophisticated than ever. People my age grew up being disappointed by crummy toys we saw advertised on television and by leaders who didn’t really make a difference. People are discriminating in ways that will surprise you, and refusing to comment just tacks on a sign that says, “Hiding Something and/or Afraid to Admit the Truth.” It costs trust, and you don’t get that back very easily, and maybe never.
In a situation involving possible corruption or cruelty, most normal people are going to have something to say, even if it’s “I saw it there on the floor and I almost lost it.” If all you have to say is, “On advice of counsel, I decline to comment,” then you’re not doing yourself or your agency a lot of favors.
In this morning’s article, a public official wanted to explain a situation but made it clear that the lawyers told him not to. In a crisis, you ask the lawyers about legal options and restrictions, and then when they try to tell you how to communicate with the public, you do the opposite. If attorneys knew how to relate to the public, they wouldn’t be the most disliked professionals since a house fell on the Witch of the East. I kid because I love. Lawyers have an important purpose, but they will often urge you to say nothing and put up the barricades at exactly the wrong time.
It also appears that the agency involved wouldn’t disclose documents that definitely should have been released. So they really did comment. They said, “I’m not telling you” and “that information is mine and not yours.”
This attitude is endemic throughout local government on Long Island. At a time when people expect easy access to basic information, many local agencies still charge exorbitant fees and make people wait days or weeks for information that should be available for free, instantly. In the end, you can’t hide it, you can’t withhold it, and it takes too much time to specially prepare it, so just give it up. It’s another example of how our local governments are falling far behind and out of touch with the needs and expectations of their constituents.
We need to revamp our Freedom of Information and Open Government laws so that most documents and records are automatically and easily available, without the red tape and other obstacles. Every municipality can go beyond the generic state law right now. But it is critical that officials acknowledge that what we want and need from government has changed. “No comment” reflects a mindset from another age.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org