Great Expectations for Government Online Access Fall Short

18 10 2010

Sarah Schacht is founder and executive director of Knowledge As Power, an online nonpartisan system that helps individuals effectively participate in the legislative process. Her article “Democracy, Under Everything” seeks to expose the access and transparency issues in modern government and provide some solutions for how citizens can let elected officials know that they want change.

While I understood and sympathized with many of the points that Sarah made, I thought her expectations for government were at times totally unrealistic or simply unnecessary.

Sarah makes the case for transparency and access by citing the Constitution – a sound approach – but her expectations for how quickly we should have online access that information seems to be based upon the speed at which private businesses and far more simple databases can publish. She provides no context for how quickly government has been able to adopt previous technologies (telegraph, TV, newspaper, etc.) as to explain why government should be perceived as failing now.

I firmly believe that it is the government’s role to govern first, and keeping up with the Joneses of technology falls somewhere after that, probably in the double-digits of listed priorities. Technology should be a tool, not a responsibility of government. Sarah seems imply otherwise.

For example, she said that in 2006, “legislative staff members received 800 to 1,300 emails in their inboxes each week and peaks of 8,000 to 16,000 emails per day.” Obviously this number has multiplied as email has become a more preferred channel of communications. That’s a lot of email! Sarah criticized government’s inability to keep up with the unprecedented volume of feedback, and said, “… you couldn’t help but feel that most offices were so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that they weren’t able to hear what their constituents were saying.” Well of course they can’t. She doesn’t scale expectations or seem to understand that large organizations have to look at macro trends with data of that amount. Offices of government may fail to recognize these trends, but it’s simply unrealistic to expect that they should have to acknowledge individual messages of that volume.

In another instance, Sarah criticizes that the public isn’t able to access congressional records for 24 to 28 hours after a session. This is a failure according to what standard? A tweet? The US was set with checks and balances to maintain a deliberately slow, difficult process to avoid mistake or power imbalances. I don’t expect publishing to move any faster. As Sarah points out, many Congress members spend their time outside of Washington. Legislative process is relatively slow, so why the expectation to keep up to the pace of instant publishing? Especially in cases when people are elected to office every two or four years at the national level, what is the urgency for the public to need access to content so quickly? Surely mechanisms need to be in place to ensure confidentiality in cases that would affect economies or national security in certain cases, so do those considerations need to be sacrificed in the interest of pure access and transparency? I think not. The media has privileges to access and expedite the dissemination information process for the rest of us. That’s the whole point. Sarah admits that the language is robust and nearly unreadable. Even when we have access to legislative records, we’d rather wait for the media to translate it for us!

The only time when Sarah credits innovation and progress is a case in New York when private talent was hired organize and create systems for regular content publishing. Certainly that move made for tangible improvement but also required a contractor to do so. There was nothing democratic or legislative about the process. Someone got hired to do the job. I think Sarah should relook at her criticisms around access and transparency that that she expects democracy to afford and understand that to meet her expectations for speed and efficiency it came at the cost of private business. That’s really at the heart of the matter: Do we expect elected officials that turnover every election cycle to run an efficient, accessible business or focus their time to take on the issue that affect everyday people, on the issues they promised to answer? My guess is that they’re focusing on the later, and I prefer that.