An overwhelming majority (78%) say that “the public’s right to access” is the most important.
Public opinion toward complex issues is difficult to measure, especially as the issues involve a choice between important values. The recent debate over the Utah State Legislature’s attempt to reform GRAMA presents such a case.
Pollsters often simply ask respondents to rate the importance of individual values, But, asking citizens in one question whether they favor transparent government and another question if they favor protection of privacy will illicit strong support for both values. But at some level the two positions come into conflict. Too much transparency compromises privacy and vice versa.
Pollsters can estimate the importance of these different values by asking respondents to rank them. Respondents can then presumably weigh the different tradeoffs, thereby providing a more reliable sense of what values they think are really important. Respondents may still feel that all of the values are important, but ranking questions allow pollsters to better understand how citizens make difficult tradeoffs among competing values.
To this end, the April 2011 Utah Voter Poll (UVP) included a question asking voters to rank the different policy goals associated with the GRAMA reform.
Question Wording: “The governor has convened a working group to consider changes to Utah’s open records laws. In considering changes, lawmakers must balance several different considerations. Please rank each of the considerations below in order from most important (at the top) to least important (at the bottom). Click on a statement and drag it to change the order.”
|% Ranking 1st||Average Ranking||# of Respondents|
|The public’s right to access information about government business.||78%||1.35||658|
|A citizen’s right to privacy when communicating with legislators||15%||2.28||658|
|The administrative cost of conducting open records searches.||6%||2.88||658|
|The legislator’s right to privacy.||2%||3.5||658|
The first column of data in the table gives the percentage of voters that ranked each value first. Of the four values, an overwhelming majority (78%) say that “the public’s right to access” is the most important. Another way to think about these results is to compute the average ranking for each value. The “public’s right to access” also has the lowest average, which means that it was consistently ranked highly by respondents.
At the opposite end, only 2% of respondents ranked protecting a “legislator’s right to privacy” as most important and its average ranking was much lower than the other three values. For public officials who argue that privacy and cost are the most important values, Utah voters disagree.
Public officials face difficult tradeoffs when making public policy. If public opinion is to be a guide for the kinds of policy outcomes pursued by public officials, it makes sense to consider the complexity and multi-dimensionality of the issues when measuring public opinion.
People in public life have to accept that their right to privacy is diminished. And people in government service have no right to expect that their public service should ever be private. And because they are in a position to create laws that impact themselves as well as the public, any error must be done on the side of openness.
Government at all levels tries to get around the fact it exists to serve the public, but Utah’s big mistake was to codify into law the concept of a closed society.
What’s keeping our public officials from buying a second phone line for “public” use? That line could be open for review and their “private” line exempt unless there were serious suspicion that the private line was being used for nefarious purposes.
When a politician decides to live off of our hard earned money he or she must understand that they now live under a microscope.