Sunday 17 August 2014

How to distract our public officials from the important task of fiddling their expense accounts/re-election funds

Just give them something else to do. In the UK, for example, the Freedom of Information Act means they have to tell us what they're up to if we ask them using the right form. Even if what we want to know is whether they're suitably prepared to protect us from dragon attack.

Interestingly, a couple of the more esoteric questions might well come from skeptics trying to make sure governments are not wasting our money. Of the top ten silliest reported in the Guardian, one asked:
How many times has the council paid for the services of an exorcist, psychic or religious healer? Were the services performed on an adult, child, pet or building?
And another:
How many requests were made to council-run historic public-access buildings (eg museums) requesting to bring a team of "ghost investigators" into the building?
Never trust 'em, that's what I say! Where have they hidden the unicorns? Anyway, as the article points out, these 'silly' questions shouldn't be used to put down the FOI act. It does an important job and hopefully, all the councils have to do with most of the quoted requests is write 'None' on a piece of paper.

At least on the other side of the pond, Americans can usually rest assured that their politicians do spend some of their paid working hours on prayers, invocations and other 'spiritual' exercises. Maybe I'm being over-skeptical myself, but I dread to think what systematic requests about other esoteric uses of tax-payers money might turn up. But the White House's We The People petitioning system, in which the administration commits to answering petitions above a certain number of signatures, opens up special possibilities for distracting officials while revealing that they do have some limits. For example, the White House was famously forced to explain to the citizens of the United States why they could not have a Death Star program. The rather long answer, crafted by Paul Shawcross (no doubt a public employee) begins:
The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:
  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
Sadly, the White House has received a plentiful bounty of silly petitions, some unpleasant, and many revealing a painful ignorance of the constitution. Other than that, there might be a trend to prefer space-based silliness in the US and gothic-fantasy-based silliness in the UK. Citizens of both nations seem inspired by dystopic Hollywood scenarios, paranoia and conspiracies. It would be quite interesting to do a study.

Meanwhile, in the autocracies of the world, smug dictators must be revelling in the humiliation of their democratic colleagues who are forced to bow to the interests and humours of the public...    (cue evil cackling)

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