Governor’s office censorship of labor data is troubling
Alaska Economic Trends, a magazine our research and analysis team at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development publishes, was unusually thin this month because the governor’s office pulled an article we’d written on teachers right before publication.
That has never happened before in my 20 years with the department. My friend and colleague Neal Fried, who recently retired after a 45-year career with us, said he’s also never heard of it happening.
We spent nearly a week trying to find out what the governor’s office’s concerns were. There was nothing unusual about the article to us — we’ve written about teachers before and the article included typical information about wages, tenure, job counts, and comparisons with employment and wage data from other states.
No one from the governor’s office would speak directly to us after their initial email instruction to put a “HARD HOLD” on the issue; the only communication for the next six days was with the department’s acting commissioner and one of her subordinates, people who can be quickly terminated if they lose a governor’s confidence.
I hope Alaskans are aware that there is a layer of state government that is supposed to be nonpartisan. Those of us in that layer are protected by negotiated collective bargaining agreements from the easy dismissal political appointees are subject to, and with good reason.
We do things like design highways and bridges, conduct biological research to help keep salmon runs healthy, monitor compliance with environmental regulations, forecast oil prices and production, and produce employment and demographic data and analyses.
Outside of our jobs, we get to vote and express political opinions and donate to political parties and candidates. In our official roles, we need to keep partisanship from both sides of the political divide out of our work.
At our best, we help any administration with our subject-matter expertise and experience, but we do a disservice to the state if we let ourselves be sucked into politically motivated action or inaction.
Nonpolitical state government professionals must be willing to initiate hard conversations when an administration oversteps. Unless we stand up in these situations, the state risks losing things like the objectivity and political neutrality of a 50-plus-year economic publication like Trends.
There are ways for an administration to make things difficult on people who don’t simply do what they’re told, even if they can’t be summarily fired the way political appointees can, but — to paraphrase a line from a movie — we can’t be so afraid of losing our jobs or otherwise being punished that we don’t do our jobs.
We will continue to try to get the governor’s office to tell us why they refused to let us publish the teacher article. After addressing their concerns to the extent possible without making partisan additions or deletions, we will look to publish the article within the next few months. If we can’t do that, this incident will have established a troubling precedent and make the state a distinctly less desirable place for some of us to work.
Alaska Economic Trends is either nonpartisan or it isn’t.
Dan Robinson is the research chief for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, where he has worked for 20 years.