Some things you just can't Google

Chuck Sheketoff

The key to transparency is not technically easy access but good public records law and practice.

Efforts are afoot in Oregon to make state government more transparent. On one hand we have Attorney General John Kroger doing a top to bottom review of our public records law and revamping how his office advises state agencies on their responses to the thousands of requests for information they get each year. On the other hand we have people creating a “Google Government” — a single website where you can download all state budget and spending data.

Kroger is seeking guidance from the public on how to remove barriers that block access to government information. Oregonians will be better informed about their government if Kroger is successful.

The Google Government effort, unfortunately, relies too much on technology and not enough on people. Dishing out budget numbers without context or explanation doesn’t teach much and too often can do more harm than good. Google Government sets the stage for public misinformation about government to become more persistent.

A recent experience shows how Google Government could go awry.

Referring to a claim made on the campaign trail about the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, a friend asked me, “Is it true that the OLCC budget grew by $15 million over four years? Is that growth an example of a misplaced priority?”

It struck me as odd that candidates would attack an agency that not only doesn’t cost Oregonians a penny in state taxes but will distribute $385 million in profits (after expenses) to state and local governments this biennium for mental health, drug and alcohol treatment and other important public services.

Nevertheless, I pursued the answer, starting by reading a detailed analysis of OLCC’s budget from the Legislative Fiscal Office’s website. That gave me lots of good data, likely the same data used by those attacking OLCC. But the information was a bit overwhelming, even for a wonk like me. I needed help understanding what the numbers really meant.

Google Government is not in place yet, but a quick email produced a Google Government-like spreadsheet from the OLCC.

That’s right, Google Government eventually would give me a similar spreadsheet, but with a critical difference. As currently envisioned, it would not have connected me with public employees — human beings — who could help me make sense of the data.

The key to transparency is not technically easy access but good public records law and practice. Public access to government information is well established under Oregon law, despite a few blemishes that Attorney General Kroger hopes to tackle. So access usually is easy to get. As with many times in the past, I didn’t need to make a formal public record request. I wasn’t charged a fee. And I got all my questions answered from a simple email and a quick response by public employees.

So what did I learn about OLCC’s budget from talking with public employees that I never could have learned from Google Government?

The $15 million budget increase being bandied about does not account for about $7 million the legislature directed OLCC to spend in 2005-07 to purchase a warehouse to accommodate increased sales volume. Adjusting for that one-time capital improvement, the agency’s budget actually has increased about $22 million since 2005-07. Does that represent a misplaced priority?

No. More than three-quarters of that increase — $17 million — is compensation to the private sector people who operate the state’s liquor stores. Because sales have increased, OLCC’s budget for commission payments to store operators also rose.

Another $3 million of the budget increase went for unavoidable increased transaction fees to credit card companies from the increased sales.

After those mandatory payments, the remaining difference in the agency’s operating budget is just $2 million.

With a bipartisan vote and minimal dissent, the 2009 legislature chose to use that additional money to hire more warehouse staff to handle the increase in sales volume, to expand staff so bars, taverns and restaurants can have their license applications handled more quickly, and to improve enforcement of liquor laws to better address underage and excessive consumption.

That’s why I could tell my friend, “Yes, the OLCC budget increase meets Oregonians’ priorities.”

No doubt, technology can assist in making government more transparent. But, lacking context, Google Government is no substitute for public employees. A move to Google Government devoid of human interaction would lead more Oregonians to misrepresent and misunderstand our state budget and public structures. Some things you just can’t Google.

Oregon Center for Public PolicyChuck Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You can sign up to receive email notification of OCPP materials at

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    It's important to remember that numbers never lie, but they don't always tell the whole truth.

    Sadly, the $22M increase is all the lazy partisan needs to make his case.

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    "Dishing out budget numbers without context or explanation doesn’t teach much and too often can do more harm than good. Google Government sets the stage for public misinformation about government to become more persistent."

    Couldn't agree more. Having served on budget committees for government agencies, there are times when the general public just doesn't understand how the budget process works, or how public budgets are often structured.

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    Chuck, you and I have had arguments about this, and I want to make it perfectly clear that I agree that we need greater context with all data that is placed online. and I am open to suggestions about how best to proceed with it. but you state that we don't have google government yet, but we pretty much do. the website provides revenue and expenditure information as raw data for every state agency other than the Treasury and quasi-governmental agencies.

    the data is there now. should we provide more context? yes. Should that include tax expenditure data at the same level of granularity as direct expenditure data? Yes. Should contracts be posted online? Yes. Should we find ways to improve interaction between users of the raw data and those who can explain the data? Yes.

    Where I really disagree with you is this idea that putting the data online will create more harm than good. People will always make up much more crazy assertions about how government is spending tax dollars than the reality shows. By putting it out there, their conspiracy theories can more easily be shot down, and they can't claim the government is hiding things from the public. Greater transparency will lead to more faith in government. not the other way around as you assert.

    To Jason's point, the solution to the general public not understanding how the budget process works isn't to limit access to the budget. It's to make it more open and find ways to explain it better.

    Now, if you have empirical evidence that in the states that have excellent budget transparency websites there has been a dramatic increase in anti-government sentiment as a result, I would be happy to see it.

    For now, I would like to work with you on finding a way to have comprehensive budget data online AND improving public understanding of what it all means.

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      Why is this set up as context OR information? It's a little bit like arguing whether the words or the plot are more important for a story. The two work together. The more people know about the context, the more they care about the information. Without illustrating progressive context with information, why would we expect people to believe it? If blogs and search engines are how people seek and share information, so be it.

      In the past, there have been major obstacles to providing compelling context about contracting out, business subsidies and economic development giveaways. Without the actual names of companies and the circumstances around the public money they receive, people tend often not to engage.

      With better access to the data, information and context make a virtuous circle that can drive ongoing progress. With information to illustrate the context, a compelling case can be made for even richer and more telling information that can provide a still more powerful context.

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    I am reminded of an old First Amendment aphorism, "The best response to bad speech is more speech." My own sense is that context is indeed deeply helpful.

    "Providing less information" will likely be an argument on the wrong side of history. "Providing more information with more context" is a movement worth pursuing with vigor.

    We should be thinking about how to provide more context for information about government behavior. Some ideas to kick around: -- My own sense is that we need a movement about communicating outcomes and outputs as well as inputs and costs. -- On websites, that might include listing comparables, outputs, and outcomes.
    -- Beyond websites, that needs to include proactive communications and general civic education. -- Agencies should be communicating their work to citizens. Such communication, too often cut from budgets, is often necessary just to maximize the value of the services and to let citizens know what services are available. -- Steve Novick and I have both proposed getting every Oregon taxpayer a simple and quick "thank you note" aka an "annual report" with how general fund dollars are spent and what services have been delivered.
    -- Agencies using new media to communicate outcomes might also be a positive step. -- It might be helpful to have a toll-free hotline to answer questions about how money is spent.

    Other ideas about how to provide context could be very constructive. It's an interesting discussion.

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    All of the information on the transparency website has always been public information and for the most part (there are some recalcitrant agencies such as the Oregon Department of Energy who like to delay and put up hurdles) readily available (Attorney General Kroger is well aware of the problem of agencies taking too long occasionally to respond to requests for information and has promised to address the issue in his proposed reforms). The issue is not lack of information, but rather how it is provided.

    As to better information about state spending on economic development subsidies, what's needed are good standards (with clawback provisions) in the laws that govern doling out the subsidies, elimination of exemptions to public records regarding promises made, and good reporting (that is not exempt from disclosure) under the detailed and accountable standards. Yes, the Oregon Department of Energy made a number of us wait too long and jump through too many hurdles to get their information, but the information was released. The information about trucking companies getting inappropriate BETCs was in Google Government-like spreadsheets -- what made the issue a front page story was advocates and reporters getting the context.

    Phineas,this isn't context OR information, it is context WITH the information. Even with its blemishes and some rogue public officials who try to undermine it occasionally, Oregon's public records and public meetings laws and practices are top notch. Oregon's open budget process is the envy of people in many states.

    My concern is the simplistic theory that the data needs to be all at one website and all capable of being downloaded into spreadsheets Jon/OSPIRG criticize the Oregon's tax expenditure reports, which are among the best in the country, because they are in PDF format.)

    The PIRGs recently gave Massachusetts an "F" because they don't have the allegedly magic single website, despite the tremendous transparency byMassachusetts.

    As noted by Mark Schmitt, editor of The American Prospect, the Google Government/Government 2.0 measure is the brainchild of Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist. Schmitt notes that the "the unified facade of the transparency movement. . . might be called micro-transparency: Their model legislation calls on states to dump every bit of data possible onto the Web.....This brand of micro-transparency is based on an assumption of corruption and waste." As Schmitt concludes "At a time of economic and fiscal crisis, when states have to make bigger decisions about spending cuts and tax increases, a focus on small items, along with the assumption that government is wasteful and corrupt, hardly increases citizens' ability to think about the choices ahead."

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      Yes, I criticize the tax expenditure report because it's in a pdf format. Would it not be useful to have all of the data from the TER also provided as a spreadsheet? And we need more background data on many of those tax expenditures such as who received the benefit, how much did they get, what did they do for it, and did they do it?

      And while it's true there are strange bedfellows on this issue, many of us come from different perspectives. We are not all assuming there is corruption and waste, or we believe it's in different places. I do think we may find waste and corruption in the tax expenditures, like there WAS in the BETC.

      and gee, finding that corruption in the BETC led to reining that program in and ensuring MORE money for those other things we consider higher priority at a time of economic and fiscal crisis. You are the only person I have spoken to who doesn't believe that the BETC problems would have been caught sooner had all the data been online. We would have had self-policing by BETC users that would have caught Mesilla Trucking and the wind farms dividing up much faster.

      Plus, you and Schmitt act like the costs of transparency are excessive, while they are not. If you read the whole report you will note the table about the costs of doing these websites. Missouri has an excellent site that it updates daily and has detailed info about tax expenditures that it does within existing resources. Texas has saved millions of dollars through their transparency site by allowing contractors to see bids online so they can adjust their bids.

      What we are proposing saves money, and leads to greater faith in the government.

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    I think I would prefer to be the one determining the proper context, rather than having it fed to me. Sure, raw data can be interpreted incorrectly, but who is going to decide what the 'correct' context is for all of us? That idea sound a tad facist. Pretty soon you will have to burn all those pesky books that are taking things out of context. Eventually we can get rid of any speech that is 'out of context' as well. I will think for myself, thank you.

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      Getting an explanation is "a tad facist"? You gotta be kidding me. Nor did I say anything about "correct" vs. "incorrect" context.

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        As opposed to whom, Lance? Yourself? You hear this constantly from Americans, "I'll decide for myself". I work with professional scientists (physics) every day, and THEY don't try to interpret the data. Advanced stat is one of the few areas where people that are straight talkers can still be honest and succeed in their careers. That's why I'm not homeless.

        It is a regular happening that we argue long and hard, and 99% of the time, it comes down to the scientists just not getting the conceptual model underlying the stat. Once or twice we've been unable to reach a reconciliation, and, BTW, they were just wrong!

        But Joe Average American can just pick up the raw numbers and work it out. I'm impressed.

        Theologians, psychologists, philosophers, software engineers, and statisticians should all be pissed. Few Americans doubt that they can practice those disciplines with any less alacrity than people that have spent 10 years studying the subject, submitting peer reviewed research. Would you make hydrology decisions without consulting experts? The IT infrastructure decisions are no less technical. Have things like Columbia River dredging benefitted from public input? The Corps knows what they're doing. We should be debating the goals, which we don't agree on, not the technicalities.

        Bottom line, the simple IT choice presented by Chuck is a symptom of a much greater malaise from which American society suffers. Americans don't know a lot, and never know when to shut up and listen to someone that does. Maybe they'd be better at it if someone didn't buy off the expert whenever Americans do listen.

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          That is quite possibly the most intelligent, and to the point, reply I've have ever seen. Point well taken. I actually stand most humbly corrected, as much as I hate to admit it.

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    A number of OLCC IT irregularities were documented here during that no one was interested in. Thank you for bringing up the point. I would challenge anyone to point to a program with budget challenges that wouldn't be in the clover if they weren't being ripped off by their IT developers.

    There is no one objective, professional standard and methods for IT. Just imagine if you decided to have contractors build an addition to your house and tried to do things the way software engineering operates. You're arguing about a bad choice and an abysmal choice without addressing the problem.

    To whit: The European Greens have spelled out what software transparency means, fleshed out the process, and made a lot of very specific proposals for getting control of the beast. It's a central plank in their platform. Anyone not addressing it as such, is just keeping their favorite fudge factor out of the mix.

    And that's just talking about not getting ripped off. If you want to talk about making it actually work for you, then we've just scratched the surface. As it stands today, it's a lot like love. It means never having to say you're sorry. About as valid in this context too. The metaphor could be extended.

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      The European Greens have spelled out what software transparency means, fleshed out the process, and made a lot of very specific proposals for getting control of the beast.

      Can you share a link for more detail?

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        I wish I had the actual proceedings link, but the conference they had on the subject in September gives an idea about what I was saying about the proposals being on a very practical, worked out, level.[email protected]

        As far as what they've actually done, EU Greens fought a vanguard action in the European Parliament against the proposed 'software patent': an attempt to introduce US-style software patents to the EU, which would have devastating consequences for smaller, open source software developers. Together with a small NGO coalition, the Greens succeeded in having the law rejected by the European Parliament in June 2005, bringing an end to a 3-year legislative process. What I am calling "their platform", I take from their "Save Our Software" movement,[email protected]

        This is a good summary of the state of the international open source in gov movement. Basically the US has made sure the DoD doesn't use too much, and thrown a boogie man up at the federal level, imho.

        It's certainly not on the radar screen here, like most everywhere else. So, once again, thanks to Chuck for mentioning the subject!

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          For those that don't care to wade through all the links, I think this was relevant, re: Oregon " SB 941, for considering OSS during procurement. As of 8/27/2003, bill was in committee. U.S., Oregon Legislative Preference May 2003 Proposed upon adjournment.”Similar House bill, HB 2892, left in committee."

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