Transparency/Open Government in Port Jervis

Dear Readers,

Port Jervis, believe it or not, because of recent events is closer to being an example of open government in action.

Transparency sounds good in theory, but in action, it’s even better.

Civil society needs transparency in order to be free of corruption and serve the needs of the public, and there’s more than one public, more than one audience. We’re all individuals, and in 2018, we all can have a say.

Communication is key and diplomacy is key to peace.

To accompany my August 20 article, “How to Have a Say in PJ,” the following is my selected notes from the Brookings Institution’s aggregation of research, “The Impact of Open Government.”

Hope that you find this as educational as I did, and, with any luck, more useful.

Peace,
Brienna Parsons

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Identifying the principals is, in general, easier when the open government initiative is intended to make conditions more visible, rather than processes more transparent. ‘Visible condition’ interventions reveal the outcomes of government action, and the major principals tend to be comparatively obvious. The release of school test results might be primarily directed at parents. An interactive website for reporting local potholes is intended for drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. The principals are less obvious when it comes to transparent processes, which reveal not the outcomes of policy but the mechanisms by which government decisions are made. Who will attend the newly public town council meetings? Who will submit a Freedom of Information request and pursue legal remedies if it is denied?

In Vietnam, increasing the visibility of legislators’ behavior did not embolden them to more forthrightly represent their constituents’ interests. Instead, transparency discouraged these legislators from activities that give the appearance of opposing the regime. In a host of contexts, transparent processes can lead to more domination by entrenched interests.

This is not to suggest that increasing the transparency of government processes always empowers those with a stake in the status quo. But an examination of the literature on public meetings reveals some of the challenges in turning transparent processes into broad-based participation. In numerous contexts, carefully constructed public meeting initiatives have not only provided civic space for the disadbantaged, but have even disproportionately represented the poor — an achievement that can help offset inequalities of representation in other venues. Decisions as simple as the timing and location of meetings can include or exclude the disenfranchised.

When efforts are made to ensure that poor people people have access to transparency processes, there is clear evidence that these open government initiatives can be used to improve their access to public goods.

Another challenge in turning transparency into broad participation is a tendency to self-selection among those who participate, even among social and economic equals. It is not just the powerful, but the interested, who tend to participate in politics.

Tramsparent processes need not be just another access point for the already powerful or the highly motivated. But open government proponents must design transparent procedures that take into account who is likely to be in a position to respond to the information made available by transparency, and to offset the existing inequalities of power and engagement. The following items on the rubric will help ensure that open government information reaches its intended principals, and that those principals are in a position to absorb and respond to the information.

For data to be useful, it needs to be accessible and publicized. Nominally transparent data can often be incomprehensible. To pick one extreme example: while information about farm subsidies in the United States was technically available to the public, it took six years of effort by a public interest watchdog group to actually process the data into a useable form. In addition, accessible data requires publicity, usually via an active and independent media.

Accessibility alone is not enough; information must be publicized for people to respond to it.A consistent finding across many studies is the value of an active and free press in reducing misuse of government funds and holding elected officials to account.

Open government proponents must ensure tat their interventions actually reach their intended audience. Accessibility concerns confront both top-down and bottom-up approaches to open government. Open data projects should be adaptable for use not only by individuals but by media, academics, and civil society organizations. They should also be amenable to aggregation to the level of official accountability. Those considering direct monitoring as an approach to transparency should ensure that the information in question is truly accessible to the monitors. In addition, there is a critical role for a free and active press in reporting open government information.

Open government initiatives have often been designed based on the assumption that information alone would move people to action.

The key in each of [the cases mentioned in the document was] that resipients of the open government information could respond meaningfully to the information they were given because they had real alternatives to choose between, and a societal space in which they were free to make those choices.

In other cases, however, individual-level solutions may not be enough. In that event, open government programs need the support of either local service providers or officials to be effective.Thus the long-term effectiveness of an open government intervention often hangs on the relationship between the citizen principals and their government agents.

A comparison of two efforts to reduce absenteeism among civil servants in India demonstrates the importance of supportive officials to the success of open government initiatives.

Transparency can sometimes distort agents’ incentives, encouraging them to put on a good show rather than actually improve performance. Transparency can also interact with representatives’ tendency to ‘blame avoidance,’ and result in unintended and negative consequences. These perverse effects can come in at least three forms.

  • ATTENTION TO PROCESSES OVER OUTCOMES
  • DISPLACEMENT
  • STRATEGIC “IMPROVEMENT”

The research … shows the importance of principals having the power to act on the information made available by open government, whether individually or with the help of supportive agents.

It is a truism of democracy that the willingness of officials to support reform is not indepemdemt of the mobilization of informed citizens. Represemtatives respond not only to active political campaigns, but also attempt to anticipate the threat of potential activism. And yet, even where there are robust mechanisms of democracy, one letter of complaint is unlikely to change bureaucratic policy. A single voter has little chance of altering the outcome of even the fairest election. And, of course, in far too many less free political contexts, an individual seeking information about or expressing discontent with government faces not merely apathy but harassment, intimidation, and even violence. For citizens to shape the preferences of their representatives, they often have to work together. Here, of course, individuals encounter the problem of collective action: it is only worth participating if enough others do for the project to succeed. The collective action problem can be overcome, but only under certain conditions:

  • CONDITION 1: POLITICAL AGENCY. An individual needs to believe that he or she can and should participate in the political sphere.
  • CONDITION 2: QUORUM. An individual needs to have confidence that enough others will also participate tp have an impact. This assurance is particularly important when participants face a risk of punishment.
  • CONDITION 3: GROUP EFFICACY. An individual must believe that if the group acts, meaningful change will occur.

Several research teams have tested one approach to increasing citizens’ sense of agency: simply informing citizens of their nominal points of authority over local public service providers. A number of these campaigns have shown some success in increasing engagement and improving public services.

Simple as it sounds, being told of one’s rights and one’s points of authority can increase the extent to which people exert their power.

The quorum and group efficacy conditions are central to collective action analyses, but have rarely been rigorously assessed in the context of transparency/accountability initiatives. Collective action research suggests that trust between individuals, and therefore existing institutions that build and maintain that trust, play a crucial role in overcoming the collective action problem. There is also evidence that adopting all-or-nothing tactics, such as boycotts or nonviolent resistance, in which a single free-rider is understood to substantially damage or undermine the likelihood of success, can be effective in discouraging defection.

One context that often meets all three of these conditions is a competitive election, and there is a substantial body of research on the interaction between open government and elections. In a number of instances, voter guides based on open government data have educated and engaged voters and changed electoral outcomes.

A voter guide in Mozambique, combined with an SMS campaign, was also shown to increase turnout.

Interestingly, competitive elections can also have an impact on the behavior of unelected public servants.

Open government interventions that have been successful in other contexts have failed when powerful interests have successfully hijacked the processes by which open government information reaches the public or by which citizens can seek answers from their representatives.

When a representative sample of Ugandan voters were given the opportunity to text message their representatives, a ‘greater share of marginalized populations’ participated in this campaign than more traditional forms of politicial communication — even when the cost of sending a text message was not subsidized.

Participatory budgeting has been shown to engage the poor and other often disenfranchised groups, and improve service delivery.

In sum, there is clear evidence that open government initiatives thrive when recipients of new information about government have access to channels of influence, such as competitive elections and robust grassroots organizations.

Where these avenues do not yet exist, there is some suggestive evidence that channels of influence can be built within an open government framework.

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Mirrors for Mayors: The Press, Opinion, and Freelance Writers

PORT JERVIS, N.Y. — Less than a week after his hopeful State of the City Address for a Port Jervis “that still needs nurturing to succeed,” Mayor Kelly Decker has, as many in the city would characterize, came out of his face.

Monday, in a letter-made-public-rebuttal on his Facebook Page, to a Sunday piece by the Times Herald-Record under the editorial tagline “Our Opinion,” entitled “A methadone clinic is not a crime scene,” Decker not only calls out the Record’s editor, Barry Lewis but also calls the newspaper in.

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While plausible arguments are made by the Port Jervis Mayor, he goes on to completely flout arguments such as this one:

“Numbers, percentages, and statistics can be skewed in many different ways depending on the presenter’s angle.”

Mayor Kelly Decker

By leading with this aside before what should be the meat and potatoes staple of his argument, Decker builds up a strawman, an easy target to set ablaze. A simple reframing to make the dominoes fall easier, per se.

Nonetheless, those dominoes fall in both directions.

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As Decker goes on to “assert that [Lewis’s] math is wrong” he has already given readers contrary to his viewpoint an out. Whatever math he cited, became all methed up, when he cast doubt upon mathematics as a whole prior to playing the Texas sharpshooter. He lost those that he needed on his side as he attacked the publication.

Yes, the letter was “a response” to the editor of the Times Herald-Record, Lewis, regardless, here a few factors that make this more of a political attack:
  1. It was an opinion piece, and as such, didn’t necessarily merit such an official response as taking to the Elected Official Page that his Facebook is. Perhaps simply a letter-made-public-rebuttal on his personal page would have sufficed.
  2. Decker’s political, elected official position put him at a disadvantage for a fair fight against the editor of a counterbalance of government.
  3. Decker’s logical argumentation in his letter is riddled with fallacies.

Lewis, the editor of the Times Herald-Record deals in a world of changing opinions and changing headlines. It’ll be perceived as a political attack from the Mayor’s office not only because of these three factorss but most of all because of public opinion.

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One: Opinion

In the end, shouldn’t matter to the Mayor, as many who read opinion pieces have already made up their minds, they’ve already voiced their own opinions and they have already signed their positions’ petitions.

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2017

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Two: Authority

Now the inseparable quality of their positions immediately puts Decker at a disadvantage: Mayor of Port Jervis versus Editor of the Times Herald-Record. Not a pretty fight. Nor a fair fight.

Though it didn’t have to be a bout.

The majority of Port Jervis constituents would likely agree, that Donald J. Trump as President could teach mayoral successors a thing or two about responding to the media:

  • When put into a defensive position, don’t show it:
    Deny, deny, deny.
  • When refuting statements, as there’s no option for denial: use keywords that fire up your base and monosyllabic words and arguments that are guaranteed to win public opinion.

 

Don’t do as Decker did. But don’t do any of the above either. The media is wise to it all. Readers, listeners, and viewers, too.

Not responding at all, would have been the denial. Yet, Decker chose to tear off his suit, snap his Port Pride singlet and dive headstrong into the muddied ring for a political King-of-the-Hill match.

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Three: Logic

Although the location has already been ruled out, there were, and still are, three positions available in the methadone clinic debate. As a reporter, here not discussing either of the former, being of the latter position: for the clinic, against the clinic, and neither for nor against the clinic.

This writer puts aside the journalist hat now and dons the hat that she studied in college: philosophy and linguistics. Mostly philosophy as logic is delved into here past the Texas Sharpshooter data cherrypicker argument. This is the writer’s playground, and those in politics could learn from this and avoid unnecessary future debate and compunction.

Editor of the Times Herald-Record, Barry Lewis: making positions for the cure of addiction, for the clinic.

Mayor of Port Jervis, Kelly Decker, coming from a position of the war on drugs: on record, against the clinic.

While most readers opposite to Decker’s view may stop at his first paragraph, they’re surprisingly not alone. Even those that agree that a methadone clinic is unnecessary in the city stop at the argument that he presents. It’s a no true Scotsman argument that precedes a genetic argument.

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Paragraph-by-paragraph

A genetic argument is one that means most of the following logic relies upon the first clause. That first clause here is an argument similar to an ad hominem, or an attack on one’s character rather than their argument: it’s a no true Scotsman argument. It’s an argument that focuses on the purity of one’s position, which sounds a lot like Nikki Minaj.

That’s not even including the child-human shield appeal to emotion argument ending the tu quoque “Let’s begin with this question” paragraph where the critique is turned 180 from Decker to Lewis.

“What do you know about Port Jervis? Clearly, you hardly know nothing about us at all! Except for one public forum about the opioid epidemic in our community, you have been non-existent in this community for at least the last 4 years. You didn’t even have the decency to respond to an email that I sent to you back on June 12, 2017 that said how dismayed I was with your paper and their lack of coverage for our Soap Box Derby. This is a kid-friendly event that brings thousands of people to our city each year and there was not one mention of it in your paper. However, now you feel compelled to write about a free or reduced pay clinic that wants come to our city? Your priorities are clearly miscued.”

Mayor Kelly Decker

To the point within the no true Scotsman argumentation by Decker, I have to insert my agreement. Indeed, the newspaper requires more coverage of the “city that is on the move.” If it’s of any solace to either party in this regard, I offer my services as a freelance writer and reporter.

Paragraph Two

Again, Nikki Minaj. Since she’s so relevant here, enjoy a video:

The following paragraph is the foremost example of the Texas Sharpshooter logical fallacy. The one referenced above is a muddled example to heat up the conversation about logic. Decker would have been better off simplifying this letter down to, or at least, leading with this second sentence in his fifth paragraph:

“I have never said ‘No.’ I said put it in a medical facility, especially one with detox and mental health.”

Mayor Kelly Decker

Decker may have also done very well leading with the knowledge that he personally has. Rather than trying to chop up the data that was served against him. For instance, without condescension:

“… your [claim] that I am making the situation more dangerous. […] it’s called Mens Rea, or the guilty mind of criminal intent, and then acting on that criminal intent is Actus Reus. The majority of Cornerstone’s clientele are heroin attacks. Heroin is illegal. [….] Therefore, these patients not only have Mens Rea but also Actus Reus and those are the people I don’t want invited to our city […]”

Mayor Kelly Decker

The next few paragraphs are called a bandwagon argument. It’s not that critical and really only acts as a public support rallying cry. Trump is great at using this, however, Decker should steer clear of it, and stick to the simplest of facts. He doesn’t need to reassert his position as an elected official in this way, especially not so deep into an already messy argument, but perhaps could have opened with some of his own facts rather than refuting those offered by Lewis.

Before his closing paragraph, he sets up a nice strawman argument against the Editor. The alcohol and criminality strawman. If the Mayor had used alcohol and criminality statistics, along with his own facts, in a second paragraph, he would have solidified a solid logical argument.

In closing, Decker uses another purity, or, no true Scotsman argument. He follows it with my favorite logical fallacy: the loaded question. This writer is going to do him a service, free of charge: reorganize and rescue what can be in a whole new letter:

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Letter to the Editor:
re: “A methadone clinic is not a crime scene.”

For starters, “I have never said ‘No.’ I said put [the methadone clinic] in a medical facility, especially one with detox and mental health.”

“Your [claim] that I am making the situation more dangerous [is unfounded…] It’s called Mens Rea, or the guilty mind of criminal intent, and [to then act] on that criminal intent is Actus Reus. The majority of Cornerstone’s clientele are heroin [addicts]. Heroin is illegal. [….] Therefore, these patients not only have Mens Rea but also Actus Reus[,] and those are the people I don’t want [to be] invited to our city[.]”

“[I invite you to hire more reporters for our growing city to see that there’s more than only an] opioid epidemic in our community[. For instance, there could be more coverage of city revenue-driving events, such as] our Soap Box Derby. This is a kid-friendly event that brings thousands of people to our city each year[.]”

Short and sweet.

Rice One!: Doing Good in 2018

Was your 2018 New Year’s Resolution to get smarter? Give more? Well, if you don’t feel like reading or searching for the charity for you, here’s one possible solution: FreeRice.

It’s an oldie but a goodie.

Created back in 2007, the game has donated trillions of grains of rice, from the United Nations World Food Program, and millions of users have helped accomplish this. The “100% non-profit website” accomplishes two goals: 1) it provides free education; and, 2) it strives to end world hunger one free grain of rice at a time.

I used to play it in the computer lab instead of solitaire, galaxy pinball, Runescape or Kongregate like the other kids. With several game types to choose from on FreeRice, my favorite right now is “famous paintings.” Thanks, Google Arts & Culture.

During the Aughts, there were a lot of sites that did similar things for idle, maybe even educational, gaming, to support such causes as feeding dogs, giving flour or beans.

From websites to apps, some things have changed. The top hits from the list are the following two, for donating for activity, rather than per dollar. Donate a Photo, supported by Johnson & Johnson only asks a photo! Charity Miles may make you walk a bit, but hey, cardio that gives to charity at no cost? Nice!

What I like about this

Apps that do good things are great. Altruism doesn’t need to be an uncomfortable adventure with the Peace Corps or Habitats for Humanity anymore! Now you can be your own type of superhero right from the comfort of home! Or at the gym!

That’s all pretty wonderful, but the ease of altruistic behavior and doing good isn’t entirely what keeps me excited about things like this. It’s where things like this will develop. What’s the diachronic outlook here?

Look at 2007 to 2017! Our charitable giving can start from a larger screen, playing games, answering questions and ultimately donating grains of rice at a time, to taking a selfie or a landscape photo and donating money to a variety of causes. Things look to be opening up in the direction of doing good.

People want to not only simplify their budgeting but do good with their wealth too. Even if only with spare change, they want to save easier, retire securer, and invest in their futures. I’d love nothing more than to delve into how the world around millennials is changing personal finance, but that’s for another article.

Here, I would like to conclude on an idea that I brought up in talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It came up in that post and may make a milestone moment this year: Universal Basic Income. It’s a topic that, like finance apps, will need to be further expounded elsewhere, because the concept of free money, as Finland has proven, is better than it sounds.

A Universal Basic Income sounds awesome already, but it could get even better if it were integrated with the taxing system. Not stopping there though! Transparency is a must for personal finance and all parts of civil society.

The Universal Income (UI) and taxing software would need its own platform, like an app. The UI would need a fairly simple user interface, or (also) UI. In some of our minds, we may even imagine being able to move our money, plan, save, budget, and even decide how much of it is taxed and where it goes.

That would be the kind of future where getting involved and interactive means not only making money but budgeting and saving money and learning more about civics and taxes.

There’s another upside to it also: Say you don’t want to support war. Well, you can open up your UI app and would be able to set your taxes so none of your money went towards the military budget, and instead goes to the education budget or the highway budget. That would be the day, right?

We could use more organizations like OneTreePlanted too.