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Acting In Your Name

Identity Theft and Public Interest Groups

by LARRY TUTTLE

Nearly 30-million criminal identity thefts were reported last year. Most federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have full-time units assigned to identity-theft prevention and investigation. Interviews with identity-theft victims are television sweeps-week staples.

But more pervasive identity thefts threaten the lives, health, and safety of every US citizens. These embezzlements manifest under several aliases: task forces and blue ribbon committees; advisory boards, task forces, working and consensus groups. Whatever the label, to politicians and bureaucracies these individuals are "stakeholders." And whatever their designation, stakeholders are the hand-picked or self-selected delegates with whom politicos and agencies choose to negotiate.

Early 1960s business-school literature defined stakeholders as groups or individuals with the potential to affect achievement of a firms’ objectives. Politicians and bureaucrats soon after found stakeholder buzzwords irresistible. Now, few public sector speeches and writing fail to include stakeholder references. But this appropriation of stakeholder terminology overlooks one essential: although both governments and corporations have client groups, only governments have public interest obligations.

Stakeholder processes are perfect solutions for issues and people who will not go away. By pushing stakeholders out front, political and bureaucratic interests can feign resolve and embrace all sides of an issue at once. At a minimum, so long as something is being talked about, difficult decisions or structural changes can delayed or avoided altogether.

Non-aligned stakeholders are always solicited to add a patina of fairness. But they are easily and quickly outflanked by paid industry and agency stakeholder participants who have more time, money, and paid experts to back them up than will ever be available to stakeholders selected to represent public interests. Affable professional "stakeholders" respond with lightning speed when errant idealism interferes with their desired outcomes. Besides, ultimate decision makes are rarely at the table. When discussions or proposed actions take troubling turns, professional stakeholders can always defer to largely anonymous policy-making structures.

In the end, public stakeholders — who have no grant of authority to speak for or to act for the public on anything — find that they must compromise or labeled obstructionists or extremists, then shunned. The remaining stakeholders and their sponsors are then free to proscribe an outcome of their liking.

Stakeholder groups are unacceptable alternatives to governments’ obligations to obey and to enforce their own laws. When politicians or bureaucracies attempt to substitute stakeholders for our identities, three actions — as in any identity theft — are indispensable:

1) Report the theft immediately: Write, e-mail, and call the sponsoring agency or elected official. Demand the following:

a) public notices of all stakeholder meetings;

b) records of proceedings including audio tapes;

c) schedule and locations for stakeholder meetings;

and, d) written minority reports.

2) Undo the damage: Notify in writing the executive officer and governing board immediately if you are a member of a group which is participating with stakeholder activities. Inform the executive officer and governing board that stakeholder participants are not authorized to act, or to make decisions, on your behalf.

3) Cancel affiliations: End memberships and stop donations if groups fail to withdraw from stakeholder participation. Write to boards of directors explaining why your membership and donations are ending. Send copies of the correspondence to your local newspaper; to other groups in which you hold memberships; and, to your mail and e-mail lists.

Laws and regulations designed to protect all of us are not open to negotiation by hand picked or self-selected individuals or groups. Stakeholder processes allow political and bureaucratic leaders to escape scrutiny and responsibility for their actions and decisions. When this happens, few citizens will be inspired to push for change or care what decisions are made or who makes the decisions.

LARRY TUTTLE is executive director of the Center for Environmental Equity in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at nevermined@earthlink.net