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Doing Our Jobs

by Daniel Borenstein (MPP ’85, MJ â€™85)

In the fall of 1978, as I started my graduate work at GSPP, Berkeley voters were considering a rent control measure.

As we examined it in class, the lesson quickly became clear: policy should be driven by good analysis before politics. Otherwise, we devolve into a world of unintended consequences.

It’s up to the policy analyst to deliver a neutral review of costs, effectiveness and alternatives, even if doesn’t meet the preconceived notions of decision-makers.

As we learned, the job of the analyst is not to provide what politicians wanted to hear, but rather what they need to know. Unfortunately, far too often today at the local, state and national level, that lesson is lost.

I didn’t go to work for government; I went to work covering it. I’m a journalist.

What I see today, from the outside looking in, is quite disturbing. Decisions are driven by agendas rather than solid analysis. This nation cannot even agree on the underlying facts. We now have “alternative” versions.

While the current presidential administration injected a new phrase into our lexicon, it’s certainly not the first to ignore the facts in quest of an agenda.

And while the political left currently slams the right for its use of “alternative facts,” neither side has clean hands. Worse, the policy analysts too often enable this fact-free decision-making by bending their work to fit the politics.

To be sure, many analysts, despite the politics swirling above, have the courage to tell it like it is.

In California, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has held itself to a high standard. In Oakland, the current administration, unlike those of the past, provides solid financial analysis even when the news is ugly.

Sadly, the same thing cannot be said in Richmond, where politics trumps all; at BART, where a culture of political deception permeates the administration from the top down; or at CalPERS, the nation’s largest pension system, where solid staff analysis is superseded by political spin from another arm of the agency.

Meanwhile, at the national level, the president demonized the highly regarded Congressional Budget Office before it had even unveiled its costing of the GOP health care proposal.

We should be outraged by such ill-informed legislating, whether it’s in Washington or at City Hall.

We can do better; we must do better. The stakes are too high not to.

That means you, the policy analysts inside government. That means me, and my profession, the journalists who are supposed to serve as watchdogs. Unfortunately, neither of our professions is doing a very good job. 

If we were, California state and local governments would not have racked up at least $374 billion of pension debt, for which installment payments will squeeze out the ability to deliver critical public services.

If we were, local governments would not have promised retiree health benefits to their workers and then failed to set aside funds to pay for them. Who was minding the store? What were they thinking? Why do many of them continue this irresponsible behavior?

And when it comes time to turn to voters for more money, the tax consequences of bond issues, for example, are usually conveniently omitted from the ballot language. Or the true purpose for the new money is kept hidden until after the election.

This happens because government staffers allow themselves to be politically co-opted. And too often, my profession has failed to call them out on it.

Unfortunately, it’s likely to get worse. With journalism resources dwindling, it’s more important than ever that policy analysts step up and police themselves.

Gone are the days when local newspapers sent reporters to council meetings in every small municipality. Even when they could afford it, the coverage often missed the financial implications.

That’s because too many reporters don’t know how to read, much less analyze, a budget. Too many are simply math phobic. If ever there was a time for the two professions to better understand each other, it is now. Good news coverage of government incorporates the same sort of analytical tools we were

taught at GSPP.
And good government analysts understand that in an informed

democracy, the public should understand the decisions its government leaders are making. That requires transparent communication between our two professions.

As the first graduate of both the journalism and public policy master’s programs at Cal, I’ve always hoped the two schools would develop an ongoing academic relationship.

For me, the analytical tools learned at the then-Graduate School of Public Policy shaped my understanding of government and my approach to journalism. Good journalism should be driven by solid analysis.

A journalist’s role is not to please sources, but to tell it like it is, to give readers what they need to know. Sound familiar?

For the past decade, I’ve worked on the editorial page, where I can inject opinion into my writing. But, still, the opinion starts with the analysis, not the other way around. 
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Daniel Borenstein is a columnist and editorial writer for the Bay Area News Group. He has been a journalist for 37 years, with previous assignments as political editor, Sacramento bureau editor, projects editor, and assistant metro editor. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Policy Notes.