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A Move to Close the State's Telecom Agency Leaves N.C. Citizens Disconnected

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - North Carolina is a little less connected today.
 
After 32 years, the Agency for Public Telecommunications (APT) announced that it will close its doors this spring. Folks might not know APT by name, but they are most certainly familiar with their work.

APT ran OPEN/net, a television program where viewers across North Carolina could directly link up with Raleigh through a call-in show that was distributed through cable and other means. When OPEN/net was created in 1982 it was a first-in-the-nation effort to link citizens with government through a statewide, live call-in service.

The staff at APT liked to call it a “personal connection with state government” and indeed it was. Through live call-in shows, people got to engage in a direct dialog with government leaders in Raleigh.

These shows -- and many of the other services APT provided -- gave people a way to access their government, not through a media filter or by traveling great distances, but via direct and open access. They could get their questions answered, learn more about what it is the folks in Raleigh were doing and become engaged citizens.
 
Like so many other state agencies, APT was a victim of the recent budget cuts. They were on the cusp of doing even better things like providing C-SPAN-style television coverage of government proceedings and making web access to state government much more user friendly. But in what can only be described as a shortsighted and sad move, 32 years of increased dialog and transparency were cast aside in the name of austerity.
 
I understand the argument, that only essential programs can be funded in lean budget times. But given the tremendous changes underway in the capital, programs that directly link citizens to their government are most essential of all.

We live in an era where people don’t trust their elected leaders, where skepticism is at an all-time high. Meanwhile we had a government agency in APT that wasn’t looking to “spin” things one way or the other. They were simply giving people a way to make the information flow between government and citizen a two-way street.

Sure OPEN/net didn’t have the same size audience of “American Idol,” and sure these are the leanest of times, but in this era of civic disengagement we need more of these types of programs, not fewer.
 
Building something over 32 years is not easy and once it’s gone it’s twice as hard to restore it. The lesson here is that more of us need to speak up for government programs that let us peer inside and join the process.

We need to tell our leaders that opportunities to dialog with government are so preciously few that they are worth investing in. We need to say to our officials that your business is our business.

Ironically, now that APT is gone, we just lost another channel to have that conversation with state government. So we say goodbye to APT and OPEN/net with a heavy heart and a greater sense of disconnectedness between the state and its people.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.