Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Transparency For I and Thou? Bring It!

by Matt Rosenberg May 20th, 2010

In Huffington Post, Gadi Ben-Yahuda, Social Media Director for IBM’s Center For The Business Of Government, writes a provocatively headlined piece, “The Dark Side Of ‘Public=Online.’” “Public=Online” is the shorthand phrase being used by the good folks at the Sunlight Foundation to highlight proposed federal legislation known as the Public Online Information Act, requiring executive branch agencies to begin posting their non-classified material online for easier public access. The lead sponsor of the House version is Rep. Steve Israel. Sen. John Tester’s version contains additional provisions relating to disclosure around government contracting.

Ben-Yahuda doesn’t so much take issue with the idea of “Public=Online” but says the flipside of the “transparency” agenda is it applies to individuals as well as institutions, and at times the application of that standard to jes’ folks, feels a bit….creepy. It’s true that personal information available online is already being aggressively harvested by aggregators such as the new entrant Spokeo, who then charge a fee for access to information on where you live; any unsealed court proceedings you’ve been party to; and what foolish things, if any, you shared with “Everyone” online instead of “Friends Only” on Facebook. These concerns have prompted a number of articles expressing alarm about Spokeo. I’m a bit more sanguine.

Services which gather personal data from public sources have been online practially since the Internet started to go mainstream in the mid-90s. They’re better and faster now, but even so, as all the reportage on Spokeo notes, also prone to a fairly hideous degree of error. Still: If your name and address are in the phone book; if your home and its assessed value are in the county’s records (they are), and if you’ve contributed to a political campaign (which must report to an oversight body), that information will end up living somewhere online. If you blog about your consumer preferences, or happen to mention the names and ages of your children in a public online setting, that could be harvested, too. So, be judicious in what you reveal online, and especially make sure you know how to access and control your account privacy settings on Facebook. There are a wide variety of ways, including use of mobile location reporting devices, to broadcast that you’re away from your house. Be careful who sees that information. Very careful.

That said, there’s still a crucial imperative for the governments that answer to taxpayers to provide more and better public information, especially online. A reminder of why unhindered government transparency matters comes via some super-salient insight from the OC Watchdog blog at the respected daily newspaper The Orange County Register. Just getting information on the full compensation packages for city managers proved to be a real challenge for graduate students doing a special project.

“There is something unsavory about a process that requires innumerable e-mail and phone calls to city staff as disparate as city clerks, human relations specialists, finance managers, city attorneys, even city managers, and assistants to all the above; and that takes some cities more than three months to pull together data that should be easily accessible to anyone who inquires,” the report reads. While basic salary information is readily available and transparent, the students found the benefits packages “are often difficult to ferret out, are obscure to the public, and offer a more stealthy way to overly-compensate a City Manager without raising public alarm,” the report says.

“These added compensation benefits may and often do include such items as management incentives, deferred compensation, contributions to private retirement programs, insurance premiums, paying the ‘employees’ portion’ of payments, physical examinations, home offices, cell phones and computer equipment, autos, auto expenses, moving expenses, payouts for unused sick or vacation leave, greater-than-average vacation leave days, and the like. Many of these benefits will be taken into account when the employee retires, thereby increasing their final compensation as a basis for their retirement pay.”

Transparency alone isn’t enough. Disclosure of public information needs not only to be unforced, but also holistic, honest and comprehensible.

One Response to “Transparency For I and Thou? Bring It!”

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