Thomas Jefferson wrote often on the value of open, accessible government. He has many quotes that I have used to begin presentations to various groups, some of which I will include here:
- "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty."
- "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion."
- "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."
- "Information to the people ... is the most legitimate engine of government."
Public Information Officers play a crucial role in preserving our democracy, by educating citizens about the services and programs that counties provide and communicating with citizens during times of crisis. These activities can overcome the negative perceptions and mistrust that many citizens have of government by helping citizens see how their county government is actually working for their benefit.
But all too often local elected officials don't understand the value of public information. Most counties do not even have public information officers. For those that do, the PIO is often viewed as a luxury and not a necessity; when budget difficulties arise, as has happened during the recession of the last few years, the PIO is often among the positions that are eliminated.
I think Thomas Jefferson would disagree with the idea that public information is a luxury that can only be supported during times of economic prosperity. In this day and age, a PIO is more important than ever. Newspapers are disappearing; some are folding, others are printing smaller and smaller editions with less staff than ever before.
In an effort to remain viable, the media has turned its focus to government corruption and waste. When controversy is the only story that gets significant coverage, it is easy for citizens to become disenfranchised.
The Internet has made it easier for citizens to get information, but it also makes it easy for citizens to post dis-information. It is easy for that dis-information to be accepted as fact if no one is available to set the record straight.