Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > When Consumer ‘Outsiders’ Become ‘Insiders’

Washington has been described as a place where many people work to complicate the simple and postpone the complicated. In a recent article on the role of former public interest advocates in the Carter Administration, David Cohen, president of Common Cause, did a good job of complicating the simple. He distinguishes a different role for these for­mer advocates now that they hold high govern­ment posts. Their perspective must now shift from “outsider” to “insider.” By this shift, Mr. Cohen means that they have to “negotiate trade-offs between con-meting demands” and “administer the law as written, not as they would like it to be.”

With unique self-effacement, he adds that these new “insiders” should not be expected “to jump through our hoops any more than we would want veterans from industry to jump through industry’s hoops.”

Would Mr. Cohen have us believe that Common Cause is just another special interest group like industry? Does Common Cause have a list of any programs on its advocacy agenda which it believes should not be adopted by these new “insiders” with their trade-off perspectives? Once off the pedestal, Mr. Cohen could properly answer no to both questions.

THE POINT IS fairly simple. Our former col­leagues in the consumer and citizen movement who are now working in the federal government are to be judged, at the least, like any other gov­ernment official. There should be no playing of favorites. In government there are no friends, only users, misusers, or non-users of power.

There is a latent assumption that somehow an elaborate set of ground rules is needed to criticize these recent departees from the consumer move­ment in order to avoid charges of cannibalism or cronyism. If anything, these departees need to be held up to higher standards than other government officials because of what they have stood for, what they know.

All kinds of straw issues are being raised in the debate over former citizen advocates in govern­ment. Instead of responding to my substantive criticism of auto safety administrator Joan Clay­brook, some observers are making irrelevant con­jectures and raising points of debate not in conten­tion.

It helps to keep the victims of inadequate policymaking in mind. Were that done for the human casualties of a grossly deferred auto safety standard, Mr. Cohen instead might have characterized as “harsh” the Department of Tran­sportation’s June 30th decision on delaying further the installation of automatic safety systems in cars, and not my criticism of officials in that De­partment. –

In a December survey we conducted of high-level, former public interest advocates in the Car­ter Administration, 28 out of 60 replied with some interesting observations.

Seventy-four percent acknowledged that they had established no conditions prior to the accept­ance of their positions. Of those appointees who did establish prior conditions, only 14 percent have had a major judgment reversed by their superiors. Of those who did not establish pre-conditions, 41-percent have had major judgments reversed.

Twenty-five percent of the respondents said they would be willing to tithe themselves up to 10 per­cent of their salary to various public interest organizations which do not appear before their agency.

IN ANSWER TO the question: “What has been your biggest surprise in government service?” one new official wrote: “lack of creativity, lack of: initiative, lack of risk-taking.” Another noted: “the large number of people who have no assigned responsibilities and perform little or no work.” A: third declared: “The large part personalities and: cronyism plays.”

From time to time all these people will have to ask themselves whether they can be more effec­tive inside than outside of government. They can help answer that question by launching institu­tional changes that give citizens a deeper oppor­tunity to, participate in government decision making. Right now, if you are not a corporation, a citizen’s realistic chances of being able to afford the time and cost of such participation is very small indeed. A deeply rooted legacy of citizen ac­cess rights and remedies should be high on their priorities.