Politicians, promises and problems: What it’s really like to hold leaders accountable
Jan 23 2013
At the end of last semester, our team of five students began a project focused on bringing accountability to the newly elected legislators of North Carolina.
The project, which we simply call “Promises” right now, is a database that we are compiling of all the promises that politicians made along the campaign trail and in their platforms. We knew that creating a list of those promises would be a big task, as there were 170 elected officials in the General Assembly for us to get into touch with. But we believed that it would not be hard to find out what our representatives’ main priorities were for their term.
In the database, there will be a list of all of the legislators’ promises so that we can track their progress based on the bills they pass. We will be able to check off items that the politicians followed through on and help the public monitor their progress.
For example, if a politician promised lower taxes, and tax reforms are passed this term, then we would check that item off on his or her list.
Each representative’s progress will be viewable in a tracking bar that displays the percentage of their promises they have met.
We were surprised to find a wide range of transparency in candidates’ campaigns. While some provided well-crafted and detailed websites stocked with clear objectives and promises, others put up simple websites with only short biographies and vague declarations of their beliefs. Some even failed to enter the 21st century and lacked a website altogether.
We thought that contacting those legislators without online platforms would be a surefire way to get hold of the information we were seeking. But the variety of quality of candidates’ websites could also be seen in the range of responses that we received from legislators’ offices.
Even though the official website of the North Carolina General Assembly is required to post a plethora of contact information for the legislators, it was still difficult to get a response from the legislators. We left messages with secretaries and in voicemail boxes and sent emails to everything from official state emails to Yahoo accounts. One phone number listed on the website even turned out to be the home phone of a representative’s parents.
Thanks to this lack of communication, we still have about 44 legislators whose platforms we still do not know.
These trials showed us that all the information given to us in the name of government transparency did not make the job of contacting our representatives any easier. What was worse is that often, when we were able to contact the office of a politician, we were informed that he or she did not have a platform. That brings us to our main concern with this project.
We know that legislators are busy and it is understandable that they do not have time to return every college student’s phone calls, but a politician’s priorities should be obvious. They were all elected by their constituency based on their stance on the issues. They should be confident in those positions. And part of that is making sure that their priorities are available to the public. This level of government transparency should not be something that we have to work toward – it should be the norm.
Hopefully, we will be able to achieve this norm by continuing to contact these legislators.