Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Never Explain; Never Apologize

That old bit of arrogant advice for those in power came to mind this week reading two stories in the news. Both reveal weaknesses in how local government communicates with citizens. The City of Richardson and the Richardson school district (RISD) are both getting beaten up online. Neither is doing much, if anything, to clear up misinformation or refute allegations of misconduct.

After the jump, my own criticism of how local government fails to head off criticism before the fact.

Never Explain: In one story, which should be a positive for the RISD, the district is giving school-owned netbook computers to students for use in school and home. Online, the RISD is being accused of wasting money, either for offering computers at all or for overpaying for the ones they do offer. An RISD representative did respond to The Dallas Morning News inquiries, but as far as I can tell, that's all the district has done to communicate this program to the community. I couldn't find anything about the program on the RISD web site. A search for "netbook" comes back empty. What's needed are answers to frequently asked questions, like what are the expected costs and benefits, what are the netbook specs, what alternative specs or suppliers were considered, how were costs for the program controlled, etc. I'm confident all of these questions were asked and answered during RISD internal deliberations before this program proceeded. The RISD should capture such analysis and present it to the community to keep rumors and charges from running wild.

Never Apologize: In the other story, which is negative for the City of Richardson no matter how it turns out, the city is being sued for violating its city charter by its city council holding closed executive sessions prior to 2007. Legally, it's a moot point, as the city charter was amended that year to permit such closed executive sessions. Still, the legal skirmishing goes on. The city has legal arguments why it should prevail, but as far as I can tell it has never explained to the community why it is important for the city to prevail. Why not just admit that indeed the city charter was unknowingly violated, which is why the charter amendment election was held? One possible answer is to avoid having to make public the minutes and whatever recordings exist of those long-ago closed meetings held before the charter amendment. I can understand why the city council might not want to publicly reveal details of meetings that all participants thought were private. Innocent reasons, not criminal coverup. But the city hasn't explained and is getting beaten up online, being accused of trying to hide illegal behavior that took place at those meetings. For lack of communication, the city's reputation is going to end up tarnished in the court of public opinion even if it eventually prevails on the legal merits in the Texas courts.

No comments: