As the pandemic quickly fades into our rearview mirrors and we begin to embrace a post-pandemic future, questions will inevitably be raised over what changes we embraced during the crisis should be retained.
[caption id="attachment_222223" align="alignright" width="300"] Jacob Owens Editor Delaware Business Times[/caption]
Will we continue to socially distance workspaces out of caution and discourage shared snacks in the breakroom or begin moving back to closer confines? Will we continue to host company-wide Zoom calls or return to packed conference rooms to share in the debate? Will hybrid schedules continue, or will we soon be commuting back to the office five days a week?Those conversations are being had in every office around the world right now, and frankly the conclusions being reached will vary widely based on corporate culture, job responsibilities and productivity levels.They are also increasingly being had at city halls, county buildings and statehouses around the country as well though, including here in the First State.For nearly two years, Delawareans grew used to interacting with their local and state legislators via videoconferences from the comfort of their home. Even the Delaware General Assembly, a body that has historically been averse to opening such resources into the statehouse, relented in livestreaming committee and floor hearings. It has even begun recording and indexing floor sessions so that the public could see and hear their legislators long after the day’s work has concluded – a prospect that felt nearly impossible pre-pandemic.While some statehouse leaders have expressed concern about wiring committee hearing rooms for archived hearing recordings – the historic building lacks dedicated meeting space, so equipment would have to be installed in rooms that also host private meetings – more can and should be done to open the process to the public.Even outside Dover though, transparency is being chipped away. The Council on Development Finance, an appointed panel of legislators and business leaders who decide on applications for taxpayer-funded grants to private companies, moved last month to end virtual access to its hearings and return to in-person meetings, citing a desire to have parties gather around the table once again.
[caption id="attachment_222430" align="alignleft" width="300"] Frank Chalk and Melissa Toledo, of Fujifilm Imaging Colorants, address the Council on Development Finance in April. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
In the last six months, CDF members and the public have Zoomed into hearings from across the country while others met in the Buena Vista Conference Center in Bear. It undeniably led to a difficult listening experience as that historic property is similarly not well-suited for livestreaming – but some kind of access was better than none.The CDF decides whether the state should invest in projects that benefit our community through job creation and retention. Those dollars go to for-profit companies, often very profitable ones worth billions, so transparency of the process should be high on the list.John Flaherty, director at the Delaware Coalition of Open Government, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government, recently told me that the CDF should rethink its approach.“This agency that doles out public funds should be at the forefront of adopting technology, they should not be the caboose of the train,” he said. “They should be the engine and share what they can do.”Flaherty noted that today’s technology, such as Zoom sessions accessible on any computer, tablet or smartphone, was unthinkable just 30 years ago, when members of the public were required to attend meetings in person to see the government in action. With CDF meeting in-person during work hours on Mondays in a non-metro setting, it’s not surprising that I’m usually the only public attendee of their meetings.And while transparency is a major concern when it comes to the actions of state bodies like the CDF, it’s also a question of involvement. Some of the most insightful questioning of the panel comes from members who are still working or who spend parts of their year out-of-state in retirement. The meeting site also requires long early morning drives from members who live in Kent and Sussex counties. Returning to in-person-only sessions will prevent some members from participating and may convince future such knowledgeable members to not join at all.For better or worse, our world is increasingly moving online, and I’d hate to see our leaders revert away from the benefits we’ve obtained through the pandemic. I hope the CDF, and other public bodies, considers the public’s ability to be involved with their governance as we proceed.
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