When I first started in government auditing, I would come home and tell my wife about this or that practice that I’d discovered in an agency that was in violation of the law, and she would be stunned. She wanted to know why I didn’t call the cops and have people arrested.
These long-ago conversations came to my mind as I read Daniel C. Vock’s feature “The Smartest Train on the Track.” As Vock reports in this month’s issue, after deadly accidents in the Los Angeles area in 2002 and 2008, federal legislation was passed requiring passenger railroads and major freight railroads to install a technology called “positive train control” by the end of 2015. As it turns out, the L.A. area is the only region with both freight and passenger rail to meet the deadline.
In his feature on police body cameras, Mike Maciag reports that as of two years ago the largest manufacturer of the devices was supplying them to only a few hundred law enforcement agencies. Now the company reports that more than 2,500 agencies nationwide deploy the cameras. Yet no state yet mandates them.
Most of us would agree that the idea that government follows the will of the people -- that it has the consent of the governed -- is one of the bedrock principles of our democracy. However, neither the role of government nor the will of the people are static things. They are dynamic, evolving and not infrequently out of alignment with each other. Therefore, in our system of governance it is often the media that draws attention to these misalignments. It is incumbent on public officials to try to bring things back into sync.
We have a formal mechanism for doing this: the legislative process. But what is the will of the people with regard to commuter rail safety? What is it with regard to the interactions of police and citizens? In a huge and diverse country with thousands of competing views, it is tough to divine the amorphous, ambiguous blob called public opinion.
That said, we have federal officials who will have to decide whether to extend the deadline they’ve mandated for railroad technology or enforce the law on those railroads that do not comply. And we have the leaders of thousands of police agencies who have decided that the public will requires that they spend the money to deploy body cameras whether the law requires them to or not. The law and the practices of these entities will converge, and it will be public officials who accomplish that.