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Ax the flaks

Legislators looking to cut money from future state budgets could do well to eliminate the gatekeepers who have come to dominate communications from most executive departments in state government in recent years.
Whether their jobs are called “media relations,” “public relations” or “spokesperson,” these operatives are used by Raleigh’s stubborn and unrepentant bureaucracy as the antidote to open government laws meant to bring transparency to the way the people’s business is conducted.
Far from disseminating information in a free manner, their job is to control it to a degree that was unheard of a few years ago. There was a time when a citizen or a member of the news media could call most branches of state government with a polite inquiry and receive the answer from anyone who might have it. To be sure, there were media relations people in many offices even then, but their role was to assist the public and news media in finding information. The idea that a government employee who had factual information couldn’t release it without a green light from the spokesperson is a recent trend.
Today, the person with such information is typically prohibited from discussing most factual matters, especially if it becomes clear that the person asking is a reporter. Such calls are transferred to the public relations official who, in news media lingo, is derisively called the “flak.” Like the anti-aircraft guns used against Allied aircraft by the Nazis during in World War II, the “flak” in government is now there to run interference against outsiders who are perceived as a attackers and spies.
The bureaucratic flak in most Raleigh offices disseminates information selectively. Press releases go out touting the accomplishments of the department’s chiefs and their political bosses, while whitewashing any potentially negative details. The reporter whose phone call is transferred to a flak’s voice mail can often expect an untimely wait for assistance. When and if the official conduit of information does talk to the press, they are invariably unable to answer any detailed question in anything beyond vague generalities. A persistent reporter will likely be turned back to speak with someone similar to the person they originally tried to call, who can now speak with them, having obtained clearance from the flak. However, the conversation will now be on the flak’s radar and the state employee will have to speak carefully.
The Times-News has encountered extreme examples of flaks run amok in recent months. During calls to speak with a specific person with regional authority at the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources this spring, the newspaper had to go through the flak before ultimately being allowed to engage in conversation with the suddenly very cautious person we had originally called. Why should a state employee with a recognized level of expertise on policy issues have to speak so guardedly?
When a party working with the newspaper sent e-mails to the Department of Commerce in January to seek public records, the transfer to a flak resulted in denials of assistance or guarantees of unreasonable delays. Compliance came only after the inquiry mentioned that an attorney was assisting with the public records request. Why should someone have to hire a lawyer to obtain public documents?
The effect of the flak in Raleigh is to monitor, control, delay and sanitize communications. To be fair, this is no different than the role that precisely the same type of employee might play at a large company. Such people are often effective members of the businesses where they work, and can safeguard against communications from loose cannons in the office.
But there is a world of difference between a citizen or a journalist seeking information from a privately owned company and seeking it from government office.
It’s a little understood fact in Raleigh that bureaucrats’ bosses are not the people with titles like “director” or “secretary” or “attorney general” or even “governor.”
We the people are their bosses. We vote. We pay taxes. We have rights if we would just insist on them.
Members of the news media don’t lose their citizenship simply because they are working for private businesses. In fact, our enterprise is uniquely enshrined in the federal and state constitutions precisely because we are a necessary part of the American system. Democracy without the scrutiny of a free press operates under a tyranny of ignorance and at the mercy of official propaganda.
As taxpayers and citizens, we should not be asked to pay the salaries of people whose job is to keep us in the dark and get the politicians to whom they ultimately answer re-elected. If politicians want marketing experts to control the flow of information, put them on their campaign salaries and not the public’s dime. If a state employee in a position of responsibility cannot be trusted to speak intelligently on the subject, then the solution is a better class of state employee, not another layer of bureaucracy.
Slashing these positions in state government and banning policies that prevent most state employees from freely disseminating information would go a long way toward not just reducing the cost of government, but opening it up to the scrutiny that Raleigh both fears and needs.

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