Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘bureaucracy

The “Larger” Problem

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Passing the Buck

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in talking about what happened to Freddie Gray on CBS This Morning, spoke in a way that I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak in the last few days.  When asked about issues of transparency or police conduct or protester frustration, they don’t talk about the specific incidents of specific individuals but instead, put them in the larger context of a national or cultural or social problem.  They speak of it in a way that implies it is a problem that belongs to all of us.

That is quite a flip.

Back in the day, when authorities faced civil rights issues, there was never an acknowledgement that they were a societal problem.  Back then, nobody wanted to admit that black people were even part of society, let alone an issue society needed to address to be more equitable and cohesive.  But hearing that being mentioned so often as the “real” problem each time questions are asked about the circumstances of specific victims, it starts to sound to me like a get out of jail free card.  It starts to be used as an opportunity to divert talking about the problems in their town since their problem is really part of a “larger” problem.  So, passing it off as something that is so all encompassing that it’s beyond their control sounds reasonable while it also acknowledges the problem – a twofer.

Which is all well and good except that larger problem isn’t being successfully solved either.  Consider that if the larger problem is represented by a collection of similar, smaller problems and many of those problems are also contextualized the same way, it becomes a circular argument.

Reporters need to bring leaders and spokespeople back to the granular and not let them escape into the realm of the systemic.  There is safety in the ambiguity of policy and procedure.  Responsibility gets effectively diffused in the layers of bureaucratic anonymity.

Instead, reporters need to stay focused; policeman X shot person Y.  When will the report be released.  What will the Mayor do now.  What must the community do here?

Local, personal and immediate.

Yes or No

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When citizens want to ask their legislator a question, the best way is to visit. If you can, just show up with your question in hand.  The face to face dynamics between legislator and citizen (or even legislative aide and citizen) leaves a lasting impression that carries all the way to the ballot box.  Because that old saw, “What people do and what they say matters a lot less than how they made you feel” is absolutely true and doesn’t lie. Of course you want a substantive and true answer, but you want sincerity too.

The next best way is to call.  It’s fast and it’s direct.  It can be intimidating because the bureaucracy of a government official and their staff can feel off putting.  But voice to voice really is the next best way to hear how you’re regarded.  We all know what being dismissed over the phone sounds like, and if you can call your representative and you don’t hang up with that feeling, that’s a great thing.

The next best way is email.  While there is no direct, person to person contact, you do have a record which is the advantage of a letter combined with the immediacy of a phone call.  Again, the tenor of the reply quickly shows how dedicated the office of your congressman or congresswoman is to constituent services.

The last best way is by letter.  There is no direct, person to person contact and there is no immediacy.  But a letter has a cachet’ that none of the other forms have.  Offices know that when someone sits down and takes the time to write a letter, this is probably someone who is not going to be easily placated by a quick answer.  This type of person has patience.  They do their homework and they can be a legislator’s worst nightmare if they don’t get a personal and comprehensive answer.

So what does this have to do with a simple yes or no?

The more direct the interaction, the fewer opportunities for others to erect barriers between you and the answer you’re seeking.

Bill Cosby has a great routine where, one of his kids breaks a lamp and he asks, “Who did it?” The kid responds “I don’t know”.  But since that kid was the only kid in the room, as Cosby says, “You know who did it”.  Many times, when people call their legislator looking for answers to questions, the best kind of question to ask is one where a simple yes or no is really the only reasonable response.  Parents and the partnered know the logic of this.  When confronting a loved one, all you want to know is what is the answer, yes or no.  And you know, if you get a fifteen minute answer to a two second question, there is probably a lie in there somewhere.

Many times, the responder will argue that the answer needs context.  That they need to make sure you understand the circumstances around what made them make the decision they made.  They sometimes say an issue is too complicated to give a yes or no answer.  But if your kid breaks a lamp, or you find a condom missing from the box of condoms in your partner’s nighttable, you don’t need an explanation of the financial fortunes of Pottery Barn or how the process of vulcanization works.  A simple yes or no will do.

So when a question pops into your mind, dear citizen, do not let yourself be swayed by delays or obfsucation.  As with interviews, make clear what you want to know before you make contact.  Listen to the answer you get and ask yourself, does that answer the question?  If not, come around again and this time, be prepared to strafe.