In the past I wrote about the importance of privacy in our politics from the point of view of Jonathan Rauch and his book Political Realism. We have almost no trust in government, and we frequently say things like, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” but the reality is that politics is made much more complex when it is in the open. Difficult negotiations, compromises, and sacrifices are hard to do in open and public meetings, but can be a little easier when the cameras are turned off and political figures who disagree can have open and honest discussions without the fear of their own words and negotiations being used against them in the future.
In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak acknowledge the difficulties faced by governments when open meeting laws force any discussion to be public. The laws come from a good place, but for local governments that need to move fast, make smart decisions, and negotiate with private and civic sectors to spur innovation and development, public meetings can lead to stagnation and gridlock. A solution proposed by Katz and Nowak is for local governments to authorize private corporations overseen by public bodies and boards to operate economic development areas and to take ownership of public asset management.
They describe how the city of Copenhagen has used this approach, “Copenhagen has found that by managing transactions through a publicly owned, privately driven corporation, operations run faster and more efficiently in comparison to how local government traditionally tackled public development projects.”
The private corporation running local development is publicly owned. It is still accountable to the local elected officials who are ultimately still accountable to the voters. But, the decisions are private, the finances are managed privately, and negotiations are not subject to public meeting laws. While the corporation has to demonstrate that it is acting in the public interest, free of corruption, it can engage with other public, private, and civic organizations in a more free and flexible manner to accomplish its goals. Leveraging the strengths of the private sector, publicly owned private corporations that put local assets to work can help drive change and innovation.
Directly calling back Jonathan Rauch’s ideas, these corporations create space for negotiations that would be publicly damning for an elected official. They also prevent elected officials from having undue influence in development and public asset management, preventing them from stonewalling a project that might be overwhelmingly popular in general, but unpopular with a narrow and vocal segment of their electorate. This prevents public officials from pursuing a good sounding but ineffective use of public resources to signal loyalty or virtue to constituents. Removing transparency and making the system appear less democratic, as Rauch suggests, might just make the whole system operate more smoothly and work better in terms of the outcomes our cities actually need.