The other day I called a state agency to get some information about a project they were involved in. This is the way it went.
"This is the Utah Department of Hiding Information from the Public," said the woman's voice on the other end of the phone. "If you have an inquiry about what we hide, call the Utah Department of Disinformation at 111-1111. If you have a question about how we work call the Utah Department of Questionable Practices at 222-2222. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. We are closed on Saturday and Sunday."
The message stopped there and then there was a long beep. I realized that must be the prompt to leave a message. There were no further instructions and no extension list, nothing. I tried dialing zero for the operator and got no response. I really wanted to ask a person a simple question, but there were no persons, nor any way to get to them as far as I could tell. I left a message, but it has yet to be returned.
It seems in our haste to save money, both in many businesses and in the government, that we have let the idea of the human connection slide off the cliff. I always hear people saying how they hate talking to machines, but I don't mind it so much as long as I have first been able to talk to a person at a business or an agency and then they send me to someone's voice mail.
Here at the Sun Advocate a few years ago someone suggested that we should have an automated answering system. I had no problem with that for off hours, because unlike large newspapers we cannot staff our offices 24 hours a day. But during business hours a person answers the phone when a call comes from the outside. Call me old fashioned, but I think most people like talking to at least one live person during a telephone call.
What businesses and particularly government have done by making all their incoming calls route through an automated system is set up one more barricade, one more hoop to jump through to get to the person you want to talk to. Government seems to particulary like to do this kind of thing. It is pretty much a known fact that people with complaints call when they are riled up about something. But if you can set back that complaint and stop them from making it for awhile, even to a machine, often they won't call back and talk to a live person.
In the business of journalism this has become every more complex. In many cases in a rural area like this I can still call up an official or a peace officer locally and talk directly to them or get a response back very quickly. But when you start to deal with agencies beyond our local ones or ones that are controlled beyond here, that changes greatly. State and federal agencies are, at times, very tough.
For years I was in sales in various kinds of businesses. Anyone who knows about sales knows about what sales people call "gatekeepers." These are the people that protect officials or executives that can made decisions from inquisitive sales people and others. They used to have an administrative assistant in the office in front of the person one wanted to see or the intimidating security guard at the front gate of a place with his big gun in his holster looking at you through your car window with the gate behind his little cubicle blocking your entrance.
This is the way it has been with private business for years and that is their right. But when it comes to public servants, elected officials and government employees, regardless of their rank or position, the public and the press should have access.
With the electronic age we have added a new level of blockage, impediment, stoppage, barrier and deterance to those who may want to get information about anything. People talk about a world more open to information with the internet, but the fact is that when it comes to getting to the principal individual in an issue or situation, it has become more impossible than ever. Our politicians surround themselves with spin doctors and security. Government bureaucrats use the idea of safety and control of information that could be harmful to the country as their excuse for limiting access. Even some law enforcement agencies have become so limited as to the information that one can get. Often what they do release is meaningless.
To me this is an illness. It is a disease in what should be a free and open society that has gotten much worse since 9-11. During World War II it was spread around to everyone in the country that what ever they knew about anything could aide the enemy. "Loose lips sinks ships" was just one of many saying used to keep people from asking too many questions or saying much about things the government felt might do damage to our war effort. Problem is, it didn't stop once the war was over. A culture in our government had grown up that saw that this kind of thinking of hiding behind security and safety as a way for them to have control of things and to eliminate questions about what they were doing by a public that was unaware, but highly inquisitive.
This type of culture grew and continued through the Cold War and right up to today with the fear of terrorism used as the prime word in todays world. And this isn't just a national situation, at times it comes right down to the grass roots.
Simply, people should know what is going on in their government regardless of the department. Congress and state legislatures have become complicit, along with the executive branches at both the state and federal levels, in hiding the truth about so much from all of us. The fact is even Presidents of the United States have been kept out of the loop on information within certain agencies based on "need to know" policies.
Having said that, I don't really care that I don't know what our submarines are doing off the coast of China nor do I want to know what the next new super weapon that is in development in Area 51 is. But I would like to be able to find out information that the government has about me or the facts in a crime that took place across town.
Most of all, I would just like to be able to talk to a person about it.