Elected officials are picked and paid by the public, so it’s fair to evaluate them not only on how well they do their substantive work, but on how well they communicate their progress to the public and hold themselves open to public critique. Keeping the public informed is not (or ought not be) a matter of spin or self-promotion, but is instead an essential function of democracy. Good communication is a politician’s invitation to be held accountable. It is an elected official’s expression of self-confidence in his or her performance. Poor communication is a signal of ineptitude, or worse, contempt for one’s constituents.
One of the better things the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors did in early 2015 was to discuss and adopt a set of policy priorities and post them on the county’s website, together with an explanation of how they would be implemented and a schedule of hearings so the public could weigh in. It was bold and it was new, a reflection of the dramatic changes in the makeup of the board after the previous year’s election. It was the supervisors’ public statement of who they were, what values they held and what they intended to do with their time and our money. It was their invitation to the public: Watch us. Measure us. Hold us accountable.
And having done that, one of the worst things the board did was to almost immediately walk away from that public communication pipeline. The once-innovative web portal is today plastered with the agendas of public meetings scheduled for various dates in 2015, budget proposals for the second half of that year and, for the most part, nothing more recent — no progress reports, updates or evaluations. The Board Priorities page is a symbol of one more good idea raised and dropped because of a lack of focus and follow-through — the same fate that has stymied so many substantive county programs in years past. In the end, this manifestation of new thinking and new vigor became a sign that it was really the same old board doing (and not doing) the same old thing.
Yes, there are impressive videos and a modicum of information on the county’s homelessness efforts. But for the other three priorities — the Sheriff’s Department, child protection and the integration of the county’s three separate health agencies into one — there is nothing there posted more recently than 2015. The only concession to passing time was to update the “2015 Major Priorities” heading on the page. Late Wednesday afternoon it was updated to 2018. But the actual communication to the public — the hearing dates, the motions and the documents — are like yellowed sheets of paper thumbtacked to a dusty bulletin board in a room that was locked up and abandoned nearly three years ago.
Now here’s the kicker: The board really does have an updated set of priorities and really has serious work going on in at least some of those four areas. Or rather, six areas, because it has added “environmental oversight” and “immigration” to its list, although it hasn’t posted those.
Why make such a big deal over a derelict website? In part because it’s so typical of county officials’ poor link with their constituents. For example, voters last year shouted a resounding “yes” to the county’s plea to raise sales taxes to fund homeless services, and now the public has every right to demand a progress report. But the date of the most recent session of the citizens oversight commission wasn’t even posted until a week after it was over. That’s a statement: Either the county is inept at its basic functions of communication and accountability (in which case, what faith can we have in its performance of substantive tasks?), or its leaders are actively shunning public scrutiny. In either case, it’s a mark of failure.
It doesn’t have to be this way. County officials are doing some remarkable work. The task they’ve taken on to combat homelessness is monumental. Their attempt to reinvent juvenile probation is profound. The county’s role in the state’s economy is enormous. Its leaders have an important story to tell — but they’re not telling it, and appear to have little interest in doing so. The consequence may well be an electorate that can see no progress and won’t be there the next time county leaders come calling for funding. That would be a shame. Perhaps it’s time to make communication and accountability priorities.