Smart Enough for Government Records

Be wary of government when it implies you're not smart enough to understand public information.

Did you know you’re not smart enough to read government information?

You don’t understand legal terminology. You don’t understand context. You can’t distinguish between facts and distortions, not to mention your lack of ability to pick up on self-serving statements.

So, rather than make you feel bad about yourself, some in government would like to help you out. If the information isn’t easily available to you, you’ll never know what you’re missing.

Like a protective mama cub, there are those in government who are ready and willing to protect you from a dangerous predator: public information.

In King and Queen County, it’s the clerk of court, who is one of just three clerks statewide who refuse to put the public’s public records online. The clerk told the Times-Dispatch during Sunshine Week that she doesn’t put the records online because she fears that the information could be "so easily misinterpreted by people that are not trained how to read that information."

(Of course, this raises the question of why people can understand the information in paper copies — which she does make available — but not the same information online. But I digress….)

So, since the citizens of King and Queen are not smart enough to understand a court record, they just shouldn’t be able to see it from the comfort of their own homes.

In Rockingham County, school officials are worried about a bill passed by the General Assembly (but not yet signed into law) that would put school discipline statistics online. The total number of expulsions and suspensions is already available, but now the data will be broken down demographically by race, ethnicity, gender and disability.

The county information director says that not only could children be more easily identified in areas with small minority populations, but the data could also be misleading. “As the groups get smaller, it gets tricky to draw good conclusions,” the director told the Daily News Record.

The school superintendent added that if percentages, rather than raw numbers are used, the public could make incorrect assumptions about the county’s discipline practices. “If you don’t have all the information, or a false understanding of the school’s dynamics, you could [be] misled in your interpretation,” she told the same paper.

So, since the citizens of Rockingham County are not smart enough to put the numbers (or percentages) into proper context, maybe they shouldn’t be able to see them online.

In Richmond, according to an article in the Register & Bee, the governor’s chief of staff explained in a media conference call that the reason the records of the newly created uranium mining workgroup would not be open to the public prior to official workgroup updates to ensure neutral presentation of various pieces of information and how they fit together.

So, since the citizens of Virginia are not smart enough to take into account who is submitting the data and draw their own conclusions from it, then they shouldn't get to see the data until the government puts it together for them.

What all three of these examples have in common is not just an underestimation of the public intelligence — a public that includes diligent investigative reporters, think tanks, academics and those experienced in the very fields being discussed —but a desire to shape and control the message the public receives.

They assume that there is but one message or one acceptable conclusion: the one the government creates.

You don’t understand these legal documents, well here’s what I say they mean, the clerk says. (Note: If all legal documents meant just ONE thing, all Supreme Court cases would be decided 9-0.)

If you draw a conclusion about our discipline practices that is different from our conclusion, then you’ve been misled, says the school official.

And if you see a different big picture after you look at the data on your own, the governor’s office says, you will have put the pieces together wrong.

The data is the data. The records are the records. And we all bring our different experiences, backgrounds, education and intuition to the table when we examine and interpret that data.

It is the beauty of our intellectual capabilities that we can view the same things differently. It may be messy and we may not agree, but the alternative is to live in a society that tells us what to think and how to interpret the world around us.

We’re too smart for that.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Isle D Belle March 22, 2012 at 02:03 PM
Transparency should be the goal. If a member of the public doesn't understand something about the records, then it would be that public servant's job to assist that person. While confidentiality of children's school records is an important consideration, there are likely steps that could be taken to minimize the likelihood of release of confidential information. In many places where release of information has been feared, once that information is released, those fears are pretty quickly seen to have been an overreaction. Generally, fewer people than expected actually pay attention.
Dorothy Hassan April 02, 2012 at 03:33 PM
I think part of the problem is that the information is not so hard to understand as the "governmentese" in which it is written. Writing skills are, in general, poor. As a former publications manager for a high-tech government contractor I have had to oversee the editing of many a technical manual so that those who must use them can actually understand the content. Now, as a writing teacher, I emphasize clarity. On the other hand, information is often rendered in obscure language to -- well, obscure the truth!


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