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April 11, 2010

The Challenge of Choosing

An editorial in Friday's Burlington Free Press opines: "The proposal to replace newspaper notices of proposed state rules changes with online postings presents Vermonters with a false choice. The obvious course is to use all media -- print, broadcast and online -- to ensure reaching as many people as possible." The Free Press is reacting to one of the proposals in Challenges for Change, a set of initiatives designed to improve the outcomes achieved by state government within budgets which have been reduced by $38 million.

There couldn't be a better example – although a relatively small one – of the choices facing Vermonters as we deal not only with harsh fiscal realities but also the possibilities of using new technologies to improve old services at a much lower price. This, like the others, is not a "false choice"; state government can't do everything in every possible way. It (and we) have to choose the most effective ways to achieve the outcomes that are important to us.

The facts are these:

  • From the dawn of the newspaper era, governments have paid to publish notices. These payments have been an important source of revenue to newspapers (the Free Press correctly acknowledges that they receive income from these notices).
  • Vermont state government currently pays about $100,000/year to publish notices of proposed rule changes in sixteen newspapers across the state. This is not all of the newspapers in Vermont, BTW; the Secretary of State has kept the list to sixteen to save money.
  • After an initial investment of probably less than $10,000, all notices of proposed rules can be published online at a cost of less than $1000/year.
  • Most people don't get their news from the paper edition of newspapers, anymore. In fact, newspapers rank behind TV, radio, and the Internet as a news source in most recent polls I've seen. (Local news is an exception so far, however).

The advantages of newspaper publication are:

  • You may notice a proposed rule in a newspaper even if you're not looking for it.
  • Not all Vermonters have broadband Internet; some don't even go online at all.
  • People are used to finding proposed rules in newspapers.
  • Vermonters can go to their neighborhood library to read newspapers they don't subscribe to.

The advantages of online publication are:

  • rules.vermont.gov (if that's what we call it) will be searchable. If you missed publication of a rule, you can always go back and find it. You can search by keywords so that you only find those rules which interest you.
  • You will be able to subscribe to rules.vermont.gov, so you automatically receive an email, an RSS feed, or a tweet when a rule of interest to you is published. Most Vermonters have a way to get email.
  • If you want to see the full text of a proposed rule, you can click through to it. Newspaper publication only contains a summary because rules are often voluminous.
  • If you want to comment on a proposed rules, you can immediately do that online.
  • Not all Vermonters have newspaper subscriptions or read newspapers.
  • Vermonters can go to their neighborhood library to get online.

So neither solution is perfect; it's just that the online solution is better because of increased functionality. Some people will miss rules that are published online (but they can search for them or subscribe to them). Other people will miss rules in newspapers. Just as a note: we don't pay to publish proposed laws in newspapers; we just publish them online (somewhat late in the process). The newspapers report on proposed laws when they think they're newsworthy. Nothing will prevent them from reporting on proposed rules of import as well.

The Free Press' suggested solution is: "expand notices for proposed rules changes to the Web, as well as radio and TV." In other words, spend even more than we're spending now – but get more.

The Challenges for Change proposal is, after a transition period in which there are newspaper notices directing people online for proposed rules, spend almost $100,000/year less and get better results than we're getting today (but not as good results as we might get if we spent much more money and continued the old as well as embracing the new).

This is a choice; life – and government – is about choices. We can't afford to do everything. We have to choose.

Many of the arguments against proposals in Challenges for Change are like this one. An organization which has been delivering a service for the State finds an example of someone who may have to make a change or could be disadvantaged if change is made in service delivery. Not all of these organizations are as straightforward as the Free Press is in mentioning their own economic interest in the status quo or in acknowledging that there are many who may benefit from a new form of service delivery. On the other hand, these organizations do have experience in the subject under discussion. These arguments have to be listened to; in some cases it is possible to do things better than initially proposed in Challenges and the proposals should be modified or even replaced completely. That's what discussion is for.

But, in the end we have to make choices. Some – not all choices – have to be made by the time the legislature adjourns; that's always true of budget choices whether you do traditional budget cutting or take the more constructive Challenges for Change approach. We would have had an easier time if we confronted some of these problems last year; on the other hand, we would not have the choices that Challenges has presented us if the legislature had not initiated this change process at the end of the last session.

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