When business and government don't mix

A lot of ink has been spilled over the years about whether government can or should be run as a business. Whole political philosophies have developed in praise of or eschewing the notion. Personally, I don't know which side has it right, at least in terms of planning, management, budgeting, etc. But I do know one area where the two don't mix, where government cannot and should not be operated like a business: access to public records and, particularly, public meetings.

It's not surprising that successful businesspeople are attracted to government, or why they are sought after for high-level government appointments like a university board of visitors, for example. They didn't get to be successful by sitting on the sidelines or by just going in every day to punch the clock. They are likely successful because they've made bold decisions, faced problems head-on, thought creatively about issues, set their own course and put in all the extra time and effort needed to do all of them. These are motivated, talented and competent people.

But in the realm of public service, the same qualities that make one successful can often make one chafe against the strictures of laws that guarantee the public's right to know.

This notion was brought into stark reality just last week when The Washington Post quoted Richmond businessman William Goodwin, also a member of the U.Va. Board of Visitors, as saying that the Freedom of Information Act was a deterrent to his involvement in the board's business.

The notion is not unique to Goodwin. Arguments advanced in favor of allowing local public bodies to meet by electronic means — with or without a quorum of the body in one place — often referred to busy businesspeople who had jobs that took them out of town or required gnarly daily commutes. It would be more convenient for them to be able to call in from the road. And why shouldn't they be able to use the same technology they use all the time for business-related conference calls?

The reason is that government is different from business in terms of public accountability.

  • Businesses provide a product or a service. Government provides many services and performs many unrelated and sometimes contradictory services.
  • Businesses are responsible to their shareholders, their partners or their owners — people who have self-selected to support those businesses. Government is there for every citizen in the jurisdiction, regardless of income, beliefs or circumstances.
  • Businesses respond to the marketplace. When customers don't like the product or service, they can go to another seller. In government, the customers (i.e., the public) have no choice but to be bound by government decisions and laws regardless of whom they voted for.
  • Business conference calls are typically about specific topics and are limited to a specific number of people who share a common goal. There is rarely an outside audience invited to observe, much less participate (some shareholder conference calls notwithstanding). Government meetings are held by elected officials who may not have anything in common with any other member of the board.


Furthermore, the meetings feature wide-ranging agendas and the public is invited to attend.

It is no doubt a shock when people used to calling the shots in whatever creative, time-saving and cost-efficient way possible are suddenly required to toe the line that regulates how they meet and communicate with each other.

That is why a bill passed by the General Assembly (though not yet signed by the governor) is such a good idea. Sponsored by Del. Steve Landes (R-Weyers Cave), the bill would require new and existing members of state college boards to receive annual FOIA training. (This is such a good idea that we wish it would be required for all public officials!)

As it stands now, public officials are only required to receive a copy of FOIA and to "read and become familiar" with it. A regular training session will not only update officials to any changes to the FOIA (and there are changes every year), but will also give the officials the opportunity to ask questions and get advice and guidance from experts in the law.

FOIA laws are not convenient. And they never were meant to be. The meetings provision exists to prevent government decisions from being made behind closed doors. We may not have the proverbial smoke-filled rooms anymore, but there are email chats, car rides to meeting sites, lunches, golf outings, conference rooms and any other number of places where officials can get together to work out the details of the public's business.

The keyword here is not business. The keyword is public. The public's business must be conducted in public. It's against every inclination of businesspeople in the private sector to discuss and make decisions in public. But when they come into government, they must make the transition and work within it rather than trying to buck against it.

In this instance, government is not business, and the government's business must be accountable and open to the public.

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