Let our public servants share their expertise

Let our public servants share their expertise
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We have an army of specialized public servants, but the public debate is rarely informed by their expertise. Why not? The chief reason is that public servants don’t answer to citizens, but rather to their elected representatives. In other words, politicians. As a result, their valuable information gets to the public only through political filters. 

If public servants provided direct reports to the public, people could — and maybe even would — hold their representatives accountable. But this doesn’t happen, since politicians prefer to control the information that affects their reputation. 

Government workers have a simple reason to be careful with information that could affect politicians: that’s who controls their budgets. Say that you’re a state benefits administrator. Anger the wrong official, such as the governor or the chair of a budget committee, and you may find that your entire office falls to the cutting room floor.

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Consider the recent debate surrounding the shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline, which Enbridge Inc. operates beneath the Straits of Mackinac in the Great Lakes. If the line is shut down, more fuel trucks likely would use the roads. And some Michigan legislators want to know whether this would add additional strain on the transportation system. 

The state has expert engineers who can provide an answer. Yet legislators didn’t ask them. Perhaps they think they wouldn’t get an objective answer. That wouldn’t be an unreasonable conclusion: The Department of Transportation is administered by the governor, and the governor wants the line shut down. 

This puts state experts in a tricky position. If they are called to testify, they would be unlikely to lie, but they would have strong reasons to be guarded and uncomfortable. When testifying, they probably would face pressure to ensure that what they say paints the governor in the best light. 

Journalist Charlie LeDuff encountered this problem when he tried to get answers to his questions about COVID-19 deaths in Michigan nursing homes. He saw the data being reported and wasn’t sure how certain numbers were being presented. So, he submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the relevant information. The state denied it and he sued, represented by Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. The parties settled and, months later, LeDuff finally got an answer that any number of experts could have told him: The state does not have the information necessary to determine whether someone caught COVID-19 in a long-term care facility. The state wouldn’t simply produce the information when asked; it took a FOIA request and a lawsuit.

Our public servants had the information LeDuff needed all along, and a phone call or email should have sufficed. But nursing home deaths are a huge political issue. It’s little wonder that civil servants were reluctant to risk putting their boss in the same position as New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Arizona recount to show Trump's loss by even wider margin Former co-worker accuses Chris Cuomo of sexual harassment in NYT essay NY health chief criticized over state's COVID-19 response resigns MORE, who faced heavy criticism for nursing home deaths in that state. 

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Even though expert public servants were paid by the public purse for being able to answer this question, politics interfered. 

Theoretically, civil service protections shield staff from political considerations. Civil service rules were created to change government employees from being unprofessional political lackeys who were hired because of their loyalty to a candidate into expert public servants removed from politics. And while the rules may have worked to get professionals into public service, they struggle to protect them from political realities. 

Public servants should feel comfortable sharing their expertise, free of fear of political retribution. But no mere law will guarantee that. There are simply too many ways that elected officials can retaliate against public workers. 

What we need instead is a widespread public belief that retribution against public servants for informing the public is a moral problem — and any politician who retaliates is unfit for office. A strong cultural expectation that public servants should directly inform the public also would help. It’s just a shame that it’s hard to develop these norms.

Freeing civil servants to speak without fear won’t fix all our problems. For one thing, technical advice isn’t all that matters. There are fundamental differences in the views that people hold, and they can provide different interpretations about what experts report. It would be naive to think that public servants lose their self-interest or political views when they start working for the state. 

Still, our public workers have important insight and experience that can inform the public debate. They ought to be free to share it, even — or, dare I say, especially — when it lets people judge the performance of their elected representatives.

James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHohman.