Googling government: Online disclosure a growing issue for state workers

Note: Capital Campus California is a joint project between the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. They offer free seminars for state workers and other interested parties on matters of law and good government.

A year ago, as the scandal over the U.S. attorney firings came to a head, the Senate Judiciary Committee was able to compel the federal Department of Justice to turn over thousands of pages of internal e-mails. And that's just what the DOJ did – it stopped a van one night and handed over 3,000 printed pages.

Within hours, Senate staffers had scanned the pages and put them up on the Judiciary Committee Web site. Then staff members at the watchdog group TPMMuckraker posted a link on their blog, asking readers to pick a few pages, read them and leave comments on the TPMMuckraker Web site. This technique – using large numbers of people each contributing a small amount of work – is known as "crowdsourcing." By morning, every page had been read, many of them multiple times. Readers found many interesting tidbits, including a conspicuous gap in the e-mail trail that soon found its way into mainstream news stories.

Welcome to the future of government, said Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Recently, Brito gave his "E-Transparency: Google for Government" presentation as part of the Capital Campus California series for state workers.

The incident illustrates two key points about the state of government disclosure in the Internet age, Brito said. First, while government is often required to provide information to the media or the public, there is often no requirement that they do so in a usable form. Cases like the thousands of pages of printed e-mails are sadly typical, he said.

"That might be ignorance, but if you want to be a cynic, they don't want to be searched," Brito said.

Second is the simple point that the Web is incredibly powerful – so powerful, in fact, that all the government really needs to do is provide a viable stream of data. Often, feds can leave the job of turning that data into something that can be easily searched to someone else.

"If the government doesn't provide usable data, third parties will," Brito said.

Increasingly, third parties are doing just that. Instead of just providing views into single data sets, groups are creating "mash-ups" – displays that merge two or three sets of data. To illustrate the concept of a mash-up, Brito showed an application that merged Craigslist apartment ads with Google maps and real estate photos, allowing users to see not only just how much an apartment costs but exactly where it is and what it looks like.

In the political world, mash-ups could be used to show, for instance, donations from a particular industry peaking before legislators vote on bills important to that industry. Experience has shown that the more citizens and watchdog groups get access to these kinds of useful data streams, the more they want.

"It's really difficult to get anybody on the record opposing more transparency," Brito said. "The best ethics rule you can have is to make everything available."

Increasingly, California is making "everything available," or at least trying. There are several bills alive in the state legislature to make information like around government spending and behested campaign contributions easily available online. In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hired Teri Takai as the state's first chief information officer, hiring her away from a similar position in Michigan. Takai is overseeing an effort to create a kind of California government version of Wikipedia online for both state workers and citizens (see related story in this section).

But despite many recent moves in the right direction – and the presence of Silicon Valley – California government is only in the middle of the pack in terms of advanced technology, Brito said. He pointed to a currently available state document: "A Guide to Accessing Legal Information Online." It was written in 2001 and advises users to join Prodigy or America Online. Still, the state is far ahead of the federal government, Brito admitted.

"If you want to find out how much your Congressman is making, you have to go do a go down in a basement in Washington, D.C.," Brito said.

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