Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for November, 2011

How to monitor the insurance industry in Washington state

by November 30th, 2011

Government agencies continue to voluntarily disclose online substantial portions of their work, including disciplinary and regulatory proceedings, as well as accountability and performance measures. But often the key links to those Web pages are scattered here and there, in different nooks and crannies of an agency Web site.

We’ve begun to consolidate useful links to key government publications and data at our own government resource pages for Seattle, and King County and regional governments, the state of Washington, the U.S. government, and local governments in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.

But there’s always more that fits through our sieve. From Rich Roseler, Public Affairs Director for the Office of the Insurance Commissioner of Washington state, comes a handy compendium of online insurance consumer information resources.

Washington state Insurance Commissioner’s Office, Consumer Information Resources

Disciplinary orders.

Agent/company lookup (contact info, disciplinary cases, types of insurance, history with a company, etc.).

Health insurance rate hike requests including email notification and opportunities for public comment.

File a complaint against an agent, broker. or insurer.

Insurers annual statements.

Reports on financial health of insurance companies operating in Washington state.

Reports on th market conduct of insurance companies operating in Washington state.

Washington Insurance Commissioner annual reports, which include how much of a particular line of insurance is sold – e.g. earthquake, auto, homeowners, health, etc. – and by whom.

Other reports, white papers, publications.

From the commissioner’s office, there’s also an online guide to appealing claim denials by health care insurers, a tool about which we published a tutorial earlier this year.

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State of Washington spending up 57 percent from 1999-2011

by November 29th, 2011

House Bill 2127 is the focus of the Washington State Legislature’s special session which began Monday amidst noisy protests and the urgent strains of Barry McGuire’s 1965 anti-war anthem, “Eve of Destruction” blaring loudly from a big tent on the Capitol lawn in Olympia, to the smiles of passers-by.

Introduced by Rep. Ross Hunter at the request of Gov. Christine Gregoire, HB 2127 would revise the current 2011-2013 state budget downward by almost $2 billion, leaving a $600 million surplus. Reductions in budgeted spending are detailed in the bill for a range of social service, education and other programs. Concerns about those reductions in planned spending brought crowds of protestors to Olympia Monday, chanting, among other things, “no cuts.”

Protestors march along north side of Capitol Nov. 28 in Olympia/Matt Rosenberg

Their concerns are real. Among a long list of reductions in planned spending, HB 2127 calls for $216 million less than originally budgeted this biennium in special ed funding (pp. 151-152); $163 million less than planned for education “local effort assistance” (p. 155); $404 million less for education “general apportionment” spending (p. 131); and $616 million less in planned spending by the state’s health care authority (p. 74).

If state budget cuts are defined as lowering planned spending increases, there have been steady cuts in recent years. But if cuts are defined as lowering overall spending from one state budget to the next, that has not occurred; just the opposite, in fact. The Washington state web site summarizes actual state spending in the last six and the current biennia, and the totals show it grew 57 percent percent from 1999-2001 through 2009-2011, from $45 billion to $71 billion. The site is sponsored and maintained by the state’s Office of Fiscal Management and Washington’s Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program.

If the currently approved 2011-2013 state budget were maintained, through creation of new revenues including a proposed half-cent statewide sales tax voters would need to okay, then the $74 billion tab would represent a 64 percent increase since 1999. Measured from the 2001-2003 biennium, spending through 2009-2011 grew 42 percent, and if the current 2011-2013 budget is restored that would represent a 48 percent increase.

State spending 1999-2001 to 2011-13/

However, the budgeted $74 billion for 2011-2013 is only four percent more than the $71 billion spent in 2009-2011.

Tracking committees during legislature’s special session

by November 27th, 2011

Front and center in the Washington state legislature’s special session starting Mon. Nov. 28 is revising the state budget to close a $2 billion gap between planned spending and anticipated revenue, perhaps setting the stage for a statewide voter referendum March 13 on a half-cent sales tax hike Gov. Christine Gregoire is advocating to ease cuts. But though the budget – and its proposed spending reductions in social services, health care and education – will dominate the special session, legislative committees will also be continuing difficult work to retool state government and programs in a time of continued and pronounced fiscal challenges. They’ll be digging further into funding of state transportation projects, state parks, and local infrastructure; 10-year state capital budget needs; water quality; chemical contamination of the environment; the future of higher education in Washington state, and other topics, such as whether Washington needs its own meat inspection program.

Though a raft of new legislation is probably the last thing to expect in the next few weeks, the committee work does open a window into current challenges facing state government, and emerging priorities of the next regular session, starting January 9, 2012. Let’s take a look at some of what’s on tap for legislative committees during the special session.

Government as platform: the podcast

by November 25th, 2011

The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM at American University in Washington, D.C. recently featured an hour-long podcast about how governments are using emerging technology to engage stakeholders. Joining the host were: Bryan Sivak, Chief Innovation Officer for the State of Maryland and former Chief Technology Officer, District of Columbia; Tom Lee,
Director, Sunlight Labs; Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent, 
O’Reilly Media; and Abhi Nemani, Director of Strategy and Communications at Code For America. A money quote, from Alex Howard:

One of the principles when you think about this open-data movement which is now worldwide is to help the data find the people who need it. And that often won’t mean going to a government website…In the ’90s, we talked about websites. Last decade, we started talking about Web services. So it’s not about going to a portal anymore. It’s about going to an application that might pull in data feeds from dozens of different places.

And the thing that government can do in releasing public sector data is then see that data be baked into applications that are useful and find citizens where they are actually using it. So mobile application which uses local health data, a transit application that uses transit data to help people to, you know, find where they need to go…Most citizens don’t want to see raw data, but they do want to know how to do things. And that’s where the Gov 2.0 movement can make a difference.

That’s just a snippet of a rich conversation. Listen to the whole show, even read the transcript.

Alex Howard, O'Reilly Media/Alex Howard

In coming months, here at Social Capital Review, the mother blog of the Public Data Ferret news knowledge base project, we’ll be developing a guide to Seattle-area civic apps including mobile, that use government data streams to help people meet their everyday information needs. Over time, it’s also going to be interesting to look at the “conversion rate” of government data sets posted online. Every big city, county and state government worth it’s salt, and numerous federal agencies, all have so-called “data sites” full of data sets, typically in formats that are accessible mainly to software developers.

The idea is that civic-minded geeks will come along, in many instances, and do the “social utility value add” by developing apps for mainstream audiences, such as ones we have here in the Seattle region which tell you when your bus is really going to arrive, or what the recent health inspection scores are for that Thai restaurant you’re about to enter. But how often does that value add – that packaging of the data into a useful, customizable tool – really happen? And are enough of the right data being released, or sought out?

(Note: the podcast transcriptionist incorrectly refers to the pioneering Baltimore government performance data program CitiStat as “city set” and a corollary Maryland program called StateStat as “state set.” (StateStat is well worth a look, BTW).


Alex Howard’s Digiphile blog, and his Google+ page.

Sunlight Labs.

Code for America.

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Gastroenteritis outbreak on Seattle-based cruise line’s ship

by November 22nd, 2011

One hundred and forty-eight passengers and eleven crew members took ill with with vomiting or diarrhea, or infectious gastroenteritis, on a two-week voyage from Barcelona which ended November 20 in Tampa, on the ms Ryndam, a cruise ship of Seattle-based Holland America Line. In a statement, Holland America said as the cruise continued, affected passengers were asked to stay in their staterooms until symptoms subsided, and that it has been working closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in response to the outbreak. According to an an investigation update posted online by the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program, Holland increased cleaning and disinfection, made numerous announcements to passengers and encouraged reporting of illnesses, reported daily to CDC, collected stool specimens from ill passengers for CDC lab testing, and developed disembarkation plans for ill passengers arriving in Tampa. No cause for the outbreak of gastrointestinal illness has been pinpointed yet, such as norovirus, a frequent culprit in such cases. (UPDATE, 11/30/11: The cause has now been identified as norovirus).

State ethics sanctions for four DSHS workers

by November 22nd, 2011

The Washington State Executive Ethics Board has finalized disciplinary sanctions in four cases involving employees of the state’s Department of Health and Social Services who broke state law by conducting private business at work, or in one case, by using their official state employee and agency status in a political TV ad without a necessary disclaimer. At its meeting last Friday the board signed four so-called “stipulation” documents – essentially settlements in place of civil court proceedings – which had already been signed by the employees, setting fine amounts or taking other steps.

Seattle region scores poorly on HIV risk behaviors

by November 16th, 2011

The Seattle area is tied for first among 21 major U.S. metro regions in casual and unprotected anal intercourse between men who have sex with men, or MSM, and that is “the sexual behavior that carries the highest risk” among this group for HIV – the virus which can lead to AIDS. These findings come in a new report by the National HIV Behavorial Surveillance System published October 28 in a prominent medical journal of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review. Seattle respondents in the national survey of MSM also reported a higher and often pace-setting prevalence of certain types of drug and alcohol use compared to their counterparts in other regions.

For self-reported use of amyl nitrate and marijuana, Seattle respondents in the study ranked first nationally, on a percentage basis. They tied for first place in self-reported use of both methamphetamine and binge drinking; and tied for second place in use of Ecstasy and cocaine. Use of alcohol and drugs, particularly meth, have been correlated by health experts with unprotected anal intercourse between casual male partners that increases risk of HIV.

Washington state near top in U.S. home Internet use

by November 15th, 2011

Washington state is outranked only by New Hampshire and Utah in percentage of households that are connected to the Internet, according to a new report from the U.S. Commerce Department titled, “Exploring The Digital Nation: Computer and Internet Use At Home.” Washington also ranked fourth highest among 43 states for which information was available on rural household broadband penetration. Nationally, home Internet penetration in the U.S. – the lion’s share now coming via broadband services such as cable modem and DSL – is up from 19 percent in 1997 to 71 percent in 2010. However, it varies by income, age and race, as well as geography.

Almost 80 percent of Washington homes have Internet
Drawing on the U.S. Census Bureau’s October 2010 Current Population Survey, the report finds 76.7 percent of Washington state’s households are connected to the Internet through broadband services (primarily cable modem and DSL) and another three percent use dial-up, for a total of 79.7 percent wired to the Net. Washington’s household Internet connectivity rate is exceeded only by that of New Hampshire (77.8 percent with broadband plus 3.2 percent with dial-up for a total of 81 percent) and Utah (79.7 percent broadband plus 2.6 percent dial-up, for 82.3 percent).