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Transparency Roundup

The Case Against Transparency . . .
Lawrence Lessig, the free culture evangelist, Harvvard Law professor and campaign finance reformer, questions the assumptions of the transparency movement in an article for The New Republic. As Lessig memorably puts it,

“What could possibly be wrong with such civic omniscience? How could any democracy live without it? Finally America can really know just who squeezed the sausage and when, and hold accountable anyone with an improper touch. Imagine how much Brandeis, the lover of sunlight, would have loved a server rack crunching terabytes of data. As a political disinfectant, silicon beats sunlight hands down.”

In the end, Lessig identifies the problem of attention-span.

“This is the problem of attention-span. To understand something–an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence– requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.”

In the end Lessig takes a look at transparency through the lens of two other cultural mainstays that have been utterly transformed by the internet; the music and newspaper industries.  His conclusion:

There is no questioning the good that transparency creates in a wide range of contexts, government especially. But we should also recognize that the collateral consequence of that good need not itself be good. And if that collateral bad is busy certifying to the American public what it thinks it already knows, we should think carefully about how to avoid it. Sunlight may well be a great disinfectant. But as anyone who has ever waded through a swamp knows, it has other effects as well.

. . . Or Not
Somewhat predictably, Lessig’s article generated some heated conversation in the transparency community. Nancy Scola of the TechPresident blog responds

A counterargument, though, is that Lessig’s “naked transparency” is a straw man. Naked transparency, the thinking goes, is really a push for Congress to talk its coat off, or some less clunky phrase. In other words, an extremist position has the effect of simply tugging the political center closer towards openness. An obsession on freeing data is really about executing on the presumption that government in the United States, at least on the federal level, is supposed to be transparent.

Similarly, the Sunlight Foundation’s blog rounds up other responses to Lessig’s piece, including a New Republic article by the Sunlight Foundation’s founders.
Virginia FOIA Basics
The Virginia Coalition for Open Government published an incredibly useful primer on state freedom of information laws on their blog. The editorial, written by John Edwards of the Times of Smithfield, is basically FOIA 101 for people who aren’t familiar with Virginia’s open records law.
Virginia Coalition for Open Government Awards
In other VCOG news, the organization recently announced their annual open government awards. This year’s honorees are an impressive bunch.
The individual winner is Carol Lindstrom, who took it upon herself to build a website for the town of Christiansburg.

The media winner is “Mike Owens of Bristol Herald-Courier for his series of articles revealing a kickback scheme between an Abingdon magistrate judge and his bail bondsman-father.”
The government award will be shared by Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria, for their efforts to engage their citizens in government operations. Fairfax launched an engagement blitz to help get citizen input on closing the county budget deficit. Alexandria is being “recognized for its response to Norfolk Southern Railroad’s proposal to transfer ethanol from train to tanker cars (“transloading”) at an Alexandria facility. Faced with mounting citizen unease, the city first created a Web site dedicated solely to the transloading, then set out to compile the thousands of electronic communications by city staff about the issue and created a software program allowing connected messages to be read together in date and time order. Related documents were also linked to and integrated into the online archive.”
Should Congress Release Their Calls and Schedules?
The Sunlight Foundation blog takes a look at the press being able get schedule and phone call records for cabinet officials like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and asks, what if we could get that information from Congressmen.

Online, real-time disclosure of who, what, where, when and how people are seeking to influence our government, how our elected and governmental representatives are carrying out their public duties, and how our tax dollars are being spent will enable a healthy dynamic of rising public attention and engagement in demanding more accountability from government.

Schwarzenegger Vetoes Transparency Measures
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a pair of bills designed to increase transparency and accountability to the California University system. One of the bills would have limited university’s ability to duck transparency laws through the use of foundations and other auxiliary organizations and would have expanded state whistle blower protections to university employees who report on waste, fraud and abuse.
Senator Leland Yee, the democratic legislator who authored the bills, but the problem in context.

“With 87 foundations and auxiliaries operating on 23 CSU campuses, the SSU and FSU scandals may be just the tip of the iceberg,” said Yee. “Taxpayers and students deserve to know how their public universities are run.”

Data and City Government
We’ve talked about the uses of data catalogs in city governments before in this space. Rob Goodspeed bring us a report from the Open Cities conference on the use of data in city governments around the country and asks whether data matters in city government.

It is this deeper question that lurks in the background of conversations about data: although more and more may be available, does influence urban policy or planning? A conference attendee who works for the mayor of a major east coast city suggested this at one point: in his opinion the city was driven by politics, not data.

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