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Capitol Perspectives: Hidden Government Officials

Phill Brooks
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Despite the national trend toward transparency and openness in government since the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, here in Missouri there has been a recent trend in the opposite direction.

This trend was demonstrated recently when top Missouri government health officials would not take questions from reporters during the first days of the E. coli outbreak in St. Louis.

Just weeks earlier, the Missouri Department of Health took the same approach in responding to charges by the lieutenant governor that the health department was endangering the lives of the elderly by failing to promptly handle requests for in-home health services. Not one official with authority over the issue was available for questioning.

In both cases, only a public information officer was available.

I do not intend to single out the health department because this actually represents a pattern that statehouse reporters have found within the entire executive branch.

Among those of us who cover Missouri’s statehouse, it would be a difficult task to name all the department directors because we so rarely interact with or even see them.

This affects our ability to report the news. For example, consider the new federal law on health insurance. It will impose major requirements on the state for health insurance regulation and Medicaid.

Despite the magnitude of this law’s impact on Missourians, we’ve heard almost nothing on the issue from the directors of the three departments involved — social services, health or insurance. One of my reporters could not even get a phone call returned from the official hired by the administration to coordinate the state’s implementation of the law by the agencies.

It’s not just the media being left in the dark. Members of a Senate interim committee on federal health care implementation expressed anger earlier this fall when they learned the administration was about to implement a portion of the law without advising lawmakers.

A couple of years ago, when I began to sense a barrier to direct communication with agency officials in Jay Nixon’s administration, I assigned one of my reporters to do a feature story on the thoughts, ideas and policies Missouri department directors had about their public roles as policy leaders.

My reporter hit a complete roadblock. Not one of the top department directors appointed by the governor was available for comment. In every single case, my reporter told me his inquiry was intercepted by a department public information officer, or PIO, who blocked access to the director.

Regularly we are restricted to public information officers when we seek access to a department director, an expert in the department or an official with actual decision-making powers. Sometimes the PIO will even insist on a written email on the questions before consenting to an interview.

It was not always this way.

After Kit Bond became governor in 1973, his department directors were regular news-makers. They initiated policy and took public leadership roles in promoting and advancing those policies.

Bond’s Department of Corrections director, George Camp, became a public face for prison reform. His Department of Revenue director, Jim Spradling, spoke frequently on tax issues and almost always was available when reporters called.

Al Sikes, Bond’s Department of Consumer Affairs director, pursued a very active public role in advancing the administration’s consumer protection package.

During the administrations of several governors, the health department’s epidemiologist, Dr. Denny Donnell, was a regular and key source for statehouse reporters to get background and understanding on complicated medical issues involving infectious diseases. He would spend so much time to make sure we understood that I sometimes felt like his student.

From governors such as Bond, Warren Hearnes, Joe Teasdale and Mel Carnahan, I never sensed a concern that department directors might steal the governor’s publicity thunder.

But now, department directors seem silenced. One public information officer privately confided that clearance has to be obtained from the governor’s office just to talk with a reporter about a major agency issue.

An administration official once defended this tight control of information as the new approach in government and politics for handling the media. The old days of direct access were gone, I was told. It’s a way to assure consistency in the message.

But my former journalism students who have moved on to statehouse reporting jobs in other states express surprise to me about how open and accessible they find public officials in their states compared to Missouri.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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