Twenty years ago, while serving on the staff of a local government consumer service regulatory agency, the director at the time called me into his office to discuss a consumer survey the agency was crafting. He said to me, “Alton, we are putting together a survey that will have an impact on our future careers. The consumers do not know what to think. We are going to make them think what we think.”
He shared with me a regulatory reality that through his words he was able to yank forward from my mental backburner. I was shocked at the brazenness but in no way shocked by its truth. As a consumer or a trader for that matter, if you expect to have any impact on the decision making of a policy maker, you will have to be more aggressive in your actions. Voting or writing comments on a proposed rulemaking won’t get you very far in terms of impact.
As a communications tool, public comments serve as a barometer or temperature gauge for an elected official. They may at best incorporate into the announcements that accompany their rulings some of the energy they glean from public comments, but a policy maker’s decision on a rule has already been made before your shouting is heard.
Regulatory agencies are mostly reactionary and a significant portion of the rules they make are in reaction to an event or to the needs of the industry they regulate. Industry takes a 24/7 interest in the actions of government and participate in active narrative making through direct lobbying and comments in the media. They leverage these tools and advantages every day.
But even industry’s influence has its limits. Industry exists to do the bidding of government. The government grants industry charters and licenses to serve a public convenience and necessity. We tend to think “public convenience and necessity” as meaning doing beautiful things for society. This is not necessarily the case.
Providing services that make society look and feel better are tactics that support government’s primary goal: the validation of its existence and expansion. This is the box that industry is in and its attempts to influence government via lobbying are merely ways of giving itself a little more elbow room.
In the end, industry works for government, carrying out government’s philosophy, narrative, policies, and laws.
Allowing public comments is merely a tactic that nurtures the façade of democracy. By allowing the public to file comments, government provides a release valve for the public through which to vent. It is a small upfront price to head off the potential loss of political power.
In my years serving on the staffs of two regulatory agencies and as a board member of another, I can say that public comments never swayed any recommendations or decisions that I made. If you want to sway a decision maker’s thinking, you will have to learn the political pressure points and lobby to the decision maker’s interests.
9 May 2022
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