Accessibility vs. Security in Public Service

Posted on March 5, 2019

People at dinner on their phones

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kendra Davis

  • What I’m Reading: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (trying to be intentional about reading books from a variety of authors and this one from an indigenous Canadian journalist is VERY good)
  • What I’m Listening To: Just a lot of Janelle Monáe
  • What I’m Watching: Youtube yoga videos because my office is letting me plan lunchtime yoga!

We live in a weird time. This is true for lots of reasons (like this! Or this!), but perhaps none more so than the overwhelming accessibility and voyeurism available to us. Even if you have managed to resist the magnetic, seductive pull of regular social media use (though if you’re reading this, it seems unlikely), chances are pictures of you have still been posted somewhere and are floating around on the internet, available to anyone and everyone and totally out of your control.

Normally, I don’t even think about this. For all of our talks about privacy settings and being safe, I’m still out there on the Twitters telling literally no one about eating nachos for dinner and how much I love local government. #sorrynotsorry.

Tweet about eating nachos
Living my best adult life.

And if I’m honest, I’m mostly okay with all the weird, random information the internet has compiled about me. I figure it’s part of the current culture and who would want to dig deep enough to find out details about little old me?

A few months ago, I got a phone call on my office line from a man I worked with back in Kansas. I used to work at a homeless outreach organization and met a number of vulnerable folks who were working towards stability. This man was one of them – not what I would call dangerous, but definitely not someone I wanted to have my home address. He found my phone number, presumably Googling it, after having a brief conversation with my former boss where she offhandedly mentioned I was working in northern California. It really shook me up, and though he didn’t say anything menacing or indicate he was trying to locate me, it caused me to look at our transparency more carefully.

The local government scene of today is built on this idea of transparent accessibility. For many of us, it is essentially our job to make sure that information goes out in a steady stream through numerous platforms – Youtube, Facebook, open data, public calendars, etc. Because of this commitment to open access, my parents were able to watch my California City Council meetings in Kansas just to catch a glimpse of their daughter doing her thing (even though my thing was taking notes and trying not to fall asleep). While part of this is the unreasonable excitement my parents have with the mundane details of my life, it’s also life in local government. In my current City, all members of our executive team provide public calendars to the City Council, meaning our community has access to their comings and goings from 8am to 5pm, Monday through Friday.

Girlfriend meme asking where are you and who are you with
Community members asking about local government employee schedules.

While my calendar may not be published on our website, my name, phone number and email are all available in the staff directory and all it takes is a quick web search to find any public meetings I’m facilitating or projects I’m managing. On most days, I consider that a great thing! It means community members can find how to contact me and get their questions answered, which I love. We work for the people and should be available to them as public servants. Unfortunately, it also means I can get weird phone calls from men I met years ago who have difficulty setting boundaries. And while this issue may be magnified for women and others with marginalized identities, it is by no means relegated to one type of person. Public servants of all walks are vulnerable in this situation, though the scale may vary.

The unexpected phone call made me think about whether we as public servants sacrifice our own safety for the benefit of our community, and whether that “benefit” is really as significant as it seems. Clearly, there’s a balance, right? I’m not proposing that we wear bulletproof vests (unless that’s your job) to City Hall or start hiding relevant information, but maybe take a deep breath before providing every single detail of your schedule or pause and consider whether your direct number should be listed on the City website.

We want to connect our communities to the information that matters, not just any information available. As such, it is incumbent on us to set appropriate boundaries to ensure that community members don’t drown in the deluge of information, and we maintain our own security and wellbeing.

Just because we work for a local government or like agency doesn’t mean our residents and constituents deserve access to our entire lives, and it certainly doesn’t require us to relinquish our safety or that of the ones we love. You deserve to feel safe just like any member of the community you serve and the cost of providing access to information and public services doesn’t have to be your personal security.

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