If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that government effectiveness is a life-or-death issue. “COVID-19″ may be written on hundreds of thousands of death certificates over these past years, but “public negligence and incompetence” should be listed as co-morbidities. If we do not invest in public oversight, civic engagement and government modernization, we will not only fail to confront today’s crisis — we will also repeat the same mistakes the next time a crisis arises. That is why I’m proposing an amendment to Maryland’s state constitution: The Public Advocate Act of 2022 (House Bill 152) would place the establishment of a publicly elected, statewide public advocate on the November ballot. This position would supercharge our state government’s agility, competence, transparency and fairness.
Bureaucratic embarrassments have plagued Maryland since the onset of the pandemic. We ranked near the bottom of the country in disseminating unemployment insurance before sluggishly distributing federal rental assistance dollars. Most absurdly, Gov. Larry Hogan flouted normal procurement processes by paying nearly $10 million for 500,000 coronavirus tests from a South Korean company that later proved defective.
Just this past month, two more scandals roiled Maryland state government. First, The Baltimore Sun reported that the administration fired a whistleblower who revealed that hundreds of residents received spoiled vaccines from a state contractor. Second, the Washington Post discovered that Governor Hogan communicates with state employees using an electronic messaging application that automatically destroys messages in 24 hours, allowing his inner circle to shield their conversations from the public and state archivists. The governor even used the app to coach his team to hide the defective nature of the COVID tests from South Korea.
When responding to future scandals, we have a choice. We could play “whack-a-mole,” responding to each episode in an ad hoc, haphazard fashion. Or we could establish an office that would not only respond to, but also prevent future, impropriety with oversight and action. That’s the promise of an independent advocate for the people embedded within state government.
Elected every four years alongside other state offices, they would be tasked with three mandates: to monitor state government in the spirit of the public interest; to facilitate democratic engagement; and to advocate for systemic solutions to patterns seen in citizen complaints. The public advocate would be part ombudsperson (a trusted authority to process complaints), part watchdog (shining a spotlight on government failures), part innovator (bringing cutting-edge technology and practices to state bureaucracy), and part organizer (gathering forces to advocate for systemic improvements).
The tradition of electing or appointing a public official to empower ordinary citizens isn’t new. Many places have so-called “ombudsmen,” and both New Jersey and New York City have called these officials “public advocates.” Former NYC public advocates have tackled issues ranging from the gender pay gap to government transparency and from police accountability to affordable housing. That city’s current public advocate, Jumaane Williams, has gained national recognition for his use of the office to issue dozens of policy and oversight reports. For example, a November 2020 report analyzed how the city government responded to the first COVID wave and proposed recommendations for how the city could better counter future waves.
While government executives must focus on immediately reacting to crises, a public advocate can take a step back, provide oversight and propose long-term adjustments. Think: How much more effectively might the Maryland government have responded to the Omicron wave if an independent government authority with direct access to citizen complaints and administrative data had assessed how we performed during previous waves and proposed thoughtful improvements?
A public advocate would benefit Marylanders across the political spectrum. Care about civic engagement? A public advocate would not just be a technocratic insider — their mandate would include opening up government to the democratic participation of more Marylanders in more ways. Worried about waste, fraud and abuse? A public advocate would be on the front lines of fighting it, regardless of the partisan affiliation of the perpetrators. Part of Maryland’s startup community? A public advocate Office would have the independence and farsightedness to push government bureaucracy toward innovation. Concerned about racial injustice? A public advocate would have the platform and mandate to rectify bias and inequity in state agencies and programs.
No state can have too many watchdogs. Let’s install an advocate dedicated to fighting corruption, reinvigorating democracy, restoring public trust, and giving regular folks more power over the forces that shape their lives.
Del. Vaughn Stewart (email@example.com) represents represent District 19, Montgomery County, in the Maryland House of Delegates.