does, it is often the collection of information, the recording of official information, and the compilation of statistics. Yet much of what is collected and maintained by government just sort of sits there in primitive records that are sometimes accessible electronically. Yet the government is often protective of information because, certainly within the departments, there's an awful lot of turf protection in the data that they collect. If government took its role as one of making information available and providing accessibility, we would see a lot more confidence by the public in government.
If there's one thing that characterizes government right now, it is distrust. We sense it and see it all the time -- the party system, Congress, the president, state and local government -- you can't name any one of those that really has a high level of general respect.
If those in government want to be trusted, then I think there has to be much more of an open-door, open-access attitude. If people could get [information] in an easily accessible and usable form, they would be very grateful and, after all, they are the ones providing the information in many cases when they fill out forms. They are footing the bill for government.
As I look at the challenge for public officials, it is to ask themselves "how can we become more trusted, how can we gain people's confidence?" Information will play a very, very critical role. If you look at Newt Gingrich in terms of his attitude of Congress going online -- that to me was a real decision of the future. Until this point, Congress had acted as if information was something you had to eke out and find through some connection and some laborious search. And maybe it was on some tape or in some publication somewhere when it could have been made electronically accessible.
What was clear was that for a new generation of leadership, public accessibility is part of regaining trust. In my experience as a legislator, when I went online, I immediately got a lot of e-mail from people saying it's about time, this is overdue, we've used this at work for 10 years, I'm so glad that I can contact you as a constituent. Many of them are people who probably would have never written a letter, gotten a stamp or gone through that whole process. Yet, they wanted to feel like they could be in touch and I had a wonderful experience with that.
GT: What do you think is the root of the distrust of government? As you said earlier, some of it is warranted, some of it isn't. Could you elaborate?
Baker: One thing is that people perceive government like the blind men and the elephant. They only know the part that they can feel. If the average person felt that they wanted to expand their knowledge of the government beyond the parts that they see themselves or the parts they deal with, then I think that would increase their trust level.
I also think that there is something more than just overcoming a lack of knowledge. There is a sense that government is secretive. Government is not telling them things and we do see this. In some ways it's natural human behavior. If something is valuable you want to protect it; therefore if you take the average department head within government, part of their protecting the jewels of that agency is to keep that information hoarded somehow and to dole it out as they see fit.
I think all of us in our system of democracy are going to get over the feeling that we have to treasure and horde information. I'm not talking about sensitive personal information and security information, but rather the information about the running of the government.