Thursday, June 9, 2011

Transparency, Rahm Emmanuel, and the Web

I read in the Chicago Tribune that Mayor Emmanuel as part of a campaign promise has put all 34, 000 city employees names, salaries, and positions on the City of Chicago website.  I have to applaud the mayor for doing it.  What was done in Chicago can be an example for St. Paul, Minneapolis, and other government entities.  But is not just salary data to be put on the web.  For example, it is also reports, memos, position papers, and the government e-mail addresses and government phone numbers of directors/coordinators of divisions and units, along with other kinds of data.

Now do you believe that is all going to happen here in St. Paul or Minneapolis?  From where I sit it is not all going to happen because of politics, wanting to keep the public in the dark, and a host of other reasons.  Government institutions have a view that it is their information and they can decide how to give it out.  Minneapolis and St. Paul have made great efforts to get public information on their web sites. Though it is what they select for the public to see.

It depends also who is doing the selection.  A couple of years back at the beginning of our perennial state budget crunches, Mayor Chris Coleman of St. Paul decided to take the lead on budget impact on our city and set up various community meetings to meet with the public.  It was reported in the news that the Mayor's office had a memo detailing what the various cuts he would do and recommend to the City Council for action.  I was interested in getting a copy so that I could be an informed person to ask the Mayor some questions at the public meetings.

I got my copy from the Mayor's office  I suggested to the appropriate people that they should place it on the web for the public to review and to be informed.  This would be good for the public meetings that were coming up in the weeks ahead.  Was the memo put on the web before the first community meeting? No, it was not.

At the first community meeting, I saw the Mayor's staff who I spoke with about the memo and putting it on the web.  I asked the question why is not the budget memo up on the city website for the public to see.  I could not get a direct answer as to why.  My perspective was that they did not want broad dissemination of the memo to the public.  I asked the Mayor at the public meeting would he be willing to put the memo on the Internet. Within a couple of days the public memo was available.

I use this an example to show how government can control the dissemination of public data.  The public can get it if they go down to City Hall, but not on the web.  There are reasons why government will do this kind of behavior.(Issue for another post)

On the other side of the coin though is the following example.  I go to the Ramsey County Court House almost everyday.  One day I was interested to review a report. I was told there was no copy for public review.  I then said, Why is that?  I was told for cost savings they placed it on the government website.  I told them I do not have access to the web(true at the time).  She then said I could go the Library to access the report.  You mean I have to stand in line and wait to get access to the Internet at the library to review the report, I stated. Her response was there is no copy for the public to see.

This example illustrates when a department or a city may go into a whole other direction.  Access to public data is denied and a barrier is placed in front of the citizen.

The Internet is a dynamic and effective means.  Government can and will use it to interact and get information out to the public, but it should not be the only means.  Many people do not have access or do not even own a computer  It is the legal responsibility of government to provide access to public data to people who ask for it, not to suggest "stepping" to the library to use the Internet to read it.

By the way the report I wanted to review I did not go to the library to get access to the Internet to read it.  I was able to review the report at the government office that issued it the next day.

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