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Local Government Facts

Purpose of this Section

Organizations throughout the world collect and publish information about local government. From time to time, we shall post in this section summaries of selected research monographs from such groups, assuming that the reports are relevant for this Web site. The summaries will include either the mailing address of the issuing organization or its URL.

You will also occasionally find information about useful sources of information pertaining to public expenditures and other local-government facts. Our objective for this section is to encourage grand jurors and other citizens to use facts rather than unfounded opinions in evaluating local-government services. Our collection of newspaper headlines about civil grand juries illustrates too-frequent criticisms of the lack of factual analysis in some of their investigations; for example: “Grand jury shoots from the hip, says county supervisor,” “City manager: grand jury report mostly heat, no light,” “‘Grand jury report short on facts, long on emotion,’ watchdog target complains.”

The “fact problem” is not confined to civil grand jurors. You see it in letters to the editor and hear it on talk shows. One famous social critic around the turn of the century foresaw, or thought he did, that future American citizens (meaning this era) will need to understand how to use facts in their political lives. You may have read the often-cited quotation attributed to this writer concerning the role of facts in civic affairs. The quotation itself, incidentally, is an interesting study in facts, but we will tell that story later.

Usually, we will post our examples of facts as sets of numbers. We will often display them in the same format: by California counties Statewide and by counties grouped into regions. We could have chosen other ways of showing you these facts, but we think this method is useful because it illustrates how a particular type of fact, expressed as numbers, might vary among counties Statewide and by regions of the State.

We think of facts as conversation starters. In talking to public officials, for example, facts not only focus the interviewer’s attention, but that of the interviewee on something specific rather than speculation, opinion, rumor, or conclusions. Working facts into interviews also assures interviewees that we are open to new information, the correction of our data, and fact- rather than fault-finding.

You will see that, although we generally arrange facts in this series by the 58 counties of California, we do not use actual county names. We do this for two reasons. First, we want our readers’ focus to be on how to obtain and use facts, not on the failures or achievements of particular local governments. Second, we wish to encourage citizens to always verify data. We could show data with the actual names of counties; however, we have learned from experience that some people will use facts someone else has collected without first checking their validity.

For example, we have read letters to the editor complaining about or criticizing a public official by citing erroneous or contrived “facts” the writers had plagiarized. To discourage this, we have substituted surnames from California’s early history for actual names of counties. Occasionally, we might slightly alter numbers to demonstrate a point, such as what a spike looks like in a collection of data. These alterations, however, will not be extreme. Typically, they will be fairly close to the facts of the case. Using these and other techniques, we hope to help our fellow citizens learn an important point in data dredging: One should always verify data at the source before drawing conclusions from them.

We can understand that some readers might be frustrated by this policy. “If you are going to post this information, you should use the actual names of the counties,” some might say. In our displays, we will disclose the source of the data. That way, readers can use the information they find with confidence that the data they have obtained are from an official source.

Our data displays will vary in their topics. It used to be said that county government offers more than 600 different kinds of public services to citizens. Add that number, or whatever it might be today, to the numerous services of cities, special districts, and the many other forms of local government, and one can see that it would take many years to represent all of these activities in this series. That being the case, on what basis do we select the subjects we display? The answer is that many of our topics will be what California civil grand jurors themselves select year in and year out to investigate. We think that, by focusing on topics that interest civil grand jurors, we can assume that the topics are of general interest to many citizens. Even if this assumption is not entirely correct, we believe that our topics will be of considerable human interest.

Visitors to this section will notice that it usually excludes environmental topics. This does not imply a disinterest in or hostility to such topics. One might notice that some other popular concerns of the day also are not in this section. The explanation for the absence of these presences (as a former student once expressed the idea) is that they are already well represented on the Internet and in numerous foundations, citizens’ groups, and even, to some extent, in government itself.

Within the scope of our time and resources, we hope that this section of the Web site will nurture the exchange of information, leads, and tips among active citizens about subjects that now often escape citizen oversight in local government. There is more to the civic-world, after all, than abortion, affirmative action, euthanasia, gun control, and the legalization of narcotics. These are policy issues, and in keeping with the limitations on civil grand juries in California, they will be excluded from this Web site. As a friend of mine, an effective environmental activist, says, “The fines and penalties are attached to the procedures and methods, not to the policies.”

As you may have surmised by now, the general orientation of this Web site is information. That being the case, we end this brief note with an observation: Today’s newspaper clipping is tomorrow’s key to solving a puzzle.


May 1, 2008

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