Last updated on 2015.04.01
Some public officials shun and denigrate blogs and other social media. Some of these blog-wary officials may simply be unfamiliar with the technology; others (like, I speculate, members of the Madison Central School District board and administration) are stung by the criticism voiced and published for the record on such websites and thus try to discourage participation.
Fortunately, it seems that more public officials in South Dakota are realizing that blogs and social media are really extensions of the public sphere, an ongoing crackerbarrel where they can interact with the people they serve just as they are expected to do at their meetings, in their offices, and at the coffee shop.
Example #1: Rep. Steve Hickey. This Sioux Falls pastor has a lot on his plate, yet he manages to make the rounds of the South Dakota blogosphere and make substantive, instructive comments. When he catches heck on controversial issues, he doesn't run and hide. During his first session as a legislator, Hickey used his own blog to provide a series of posts outlining his thinking on various pieces of legislation, complete with charts and graphs! He left his comment section open and took comments from supporters and opponents alike. He appears ready to do the same this year, offering a blog post summarizing the big topics in Pierre at the opening of the 2012 session. "Let the townhall meeting begin," says Rep. Hickey, acknowledging exactly what his blog and others can be.
Example #2: Rep. Bernie Hunhoff. The South Dakota Magazine publisher has plenty of practice communicating with South Dakotans. Last year I noticed he started to make great use of his Facebook page to update his constituents on doings and misdeeds in Pierre and provoke discussion. He's doing the same this year: for example, Wednesday he offered the trenchant observation on the state's corrections spending:
Chief Justice David Gilbertson just finished his State of the Judiciary speech here in Pierre. He said South Dakota is "dead last" in substance abuse courts even though the one we have in the Northern Black Hills has been a great success. Isn't that a workforce issue? if we can get our youth off to a healthy and sober start, they might contribute more to the workforce? It costs just $3 to have someone on probation -- and $63 a day to incarcerate them. Yet we never question the corrections budget, while we chronically underfund schools and programs for youth. (The conclusion is my own, not the judge's) [Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, Facebook post, 2012.01.11].
Hmm... $3 for probation, $63 for incarceration... is the Governor ignoring another field where we spend more without getting better results?
Example #3: Rep. Charlie Hoffman. This Republican from Eureka isn't afraid of online conversation. Of all places, he comes to this liberal blog to hear what folks are saying and add his two cents' worth. (And hey, Charlie: have you drafted that pipeline tax yet?)
Example #4: Mayor Sam Kooiker. Rapid City's chief executive has caught heck in the local press for his role in starting the fruitless witch hunt against Fish Garbage Services (see also here and here). One might excuse a mayor for trying to steer clear of such controversy in the blogosphere and the rest of the press. Yet Mayor Kooiker wades right in with the alligators with this comment on Mount Blogmore:
Andrea's recent articles and your Blogmore post implies that I am some sort of a mastermind who was, as 1 member of a 10 member council, able to: control a human resources department and a police department, a city council (6 of whom voted to censor me), a previous mayor (who was my opponent on four ballots — 2 general elections and 2 runoffs), multiple grand juries, a state's attorney, DCI and the Attorney General.
So let's do a brief recap. On 12/22/2009, The PW Director (Robert Ellis), City Attorney (Jason Green) and Mayor (Alan Hanks) held a press conference announcing the revocation of Fish Garbage's license. I was not present at the press conference nor was I invited to attend. As you may be aware, the previous mayor was not one of my biggest fans. The previous administration signed off on Meidinger's dismissal from employment. My predecessor's sudden amnesia in the recent RC Journal article is fun to read about, but perplexing [Mayor Sam Kooiker, comment, Mount Blogmore, 2012.01.12].
Mayor Kooiker goes on to invite his prominent detractors to lunch at Culver's. Indeed, if there is one shortcoming to blog interaction, it is that we can't pass the ketchup.
Now some public officials fear engaging in online conversation because they don't want their words to become part of the public record. They prefer private meetings, quiet lunches, and quick café stops where they can simply chat of the record. But with so many regular folks sharing their thoughts by Facebook and e-mail, even a brief chat with a voter at a restaurant can become a blog post, making diner conversations available to a much broader audience of constituents. That's not a bad thing; allowing everyone to be "in" on the conversation is quite healthy for democracy.
Reps. Hickey, Hunhoff and Hoffman, Mayor Kooiker, thank you for realizing something that all public officials and the rest of us citizens need to understand. Blogs, Facebook, and other social media are not just a pastime for kids throwing spitballs and sharing beer pictures. The South Dakota blogosphere is also an ongoing public conversation, open to anyone who can hunt and peck. It is a place where we can learn what our fellow citizens and public servants are thinking and provide input, just as we do at other public fora, to help guide public decision-making.
Steve, Bernie, Charlie, and Sam can do it. So can the rest of you.