Is it even possible to be an informed citizen?

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Photo via Flickr by Loco Steve/ CreativeCommons

To be an engaged, informed citizen in California is to be hopelessly behind in your reading.

We’re told that we need to follow the big issues in California, that we need to be informed about policy debates, and that policymakers want our feedback on major proposals.  It all sounds reasonable enough, until you see the homework. The governor stresses the importance of his budget, but the summary of it is 271 pages long. High-speed rail is a hot-button issue, and the business plan for it is more than 200 pages.  Then there’s the hottest issue in our drought-ravaged state: water. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan and its draft environmental impact documents, which are available for public comment through April 14, run to 34,000 pages, a number I can’t confirm independently, because every time I try to download them, my laptop crashes.

Does all this make you think about trying to slim down government so people can understand it? Well, that was precisely the goal of the mid-2000s California Performance Review, and you can read all about their recommendations in their report. All four volumes and 2,300 pages of it. By comparison, my copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare comes in at a mere 1,280 pages. (Good thing Shakespeare didn’t live in Sacramento, or Hamlet would have had 97 acts.)

All this is enough to make you wonder if being an informed participant in state decision-making is physically possible. My job is to read and write about California, but even I have so far been unable to finish reading any of the prior four documents. (In my defense, I did make it through the BDCP’s 114-page executive summary).

Some cynics say that bureaucrats use long reports to keep the public in the dark, but my own experience with California’s bureaucrats and experts tells me that their biggest sin is earnestness. As our state’s problems have grown more complicated, transparency has required more pages. And so, by telling us almost everything, they manage to tell us almost nothing.

To help us cope, a handful of journalists devote themselves to making complicated topics understandable to the layman, but many state issues are so peculiar that clear translations of what’s going on require unlikely circumstances. David Jensen, who pores through troves of complex documents to produce an indispensable blog on the state stem cell agency, has the advantage of working from his sailboat in Central America, so he’s not so easily distracted.

For those with money, lobbyists are on hand to wade through information and tell their clients what’s what. That’s one reason there are five times more lobbyists today than 35 years ago. Sacramento has sprouted new office buildings and fancy restaurants near the Capitol to accommodate these translator/influencers.

But most of us can’t afford lobbyists. And we can’t duck the hardest, most technical issues, because this state’s politics often force voters, via ballot measures to decide the hardest, most technical questions. Those decisions are getting harder and more technical. A generation ago, 5,000-word initiatives were rare. Now, they are routine. In 2012, two initiatives on the ballot were longer than the 7,600-word U.S. Constitution.

What should we do instead? Perhaps the best approach would be to rethink the design of our documents. Instead of explaining complicated proposals through long pieces of writing, we should explain policies more succinctly and visually—via drawings, maps and graphs.

California is already home to companies and nonprofits that are good at such  “data visualization.” For instance, in the Bay Area has become quite adept at turning lots of complicated and conflicting data on money, politics and government into accessible, understandable maps and graphs and web pages.

If we want to do something similar for California public policy, we could require legislators sponsoring bills, or wealthy people sponsoring ballot initiatives, to include a one-page diagram of what their proposal would do. Call it the “Draw This Initiative” initiative.

There are other ways to use visuals as a check on super-long proposals. But this column has already proved too long—and time-consuming. And I’ve gotta catch up on my reading.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.