Ryan Beckwith has been complaining of late – and justifiably so – about the lack of transparency in N.C. government. Much of this murkiness has to do with usability. In this latest post, Beckwith touches on the disparate and disjointed Web sites that allow people to access information on state government:
Consider a newly registered voter. You’ve misplaced your registration card, but you’d like to check up on your representation in the legislature.
Now, then, who represents the 17th House District and the 8th Senate District? It doesn’t say.
You have to go to the legislature’s Web site for that and search again. Make sure you open a new window in your browser, though, since you may forget the district numberss by the time you click on Representation, click on Representation again, select a House District and hit go, then repeat the process for the Senate.
Civitas, as small as we are, has tried to put this info together, but our Citizen Legislature has limitations — (limitations that might be overcome with adequate funding from concerned citizens ;). Still it’s perhaps more of a clearinghouse than what’s available by your government. Which prompts the question: why is it so hard for government to make things easy for users?
The answer is: incentives. Government has no positive incentives to make itself more transparent or to make life simpler for users. Unlike Google – which profits from its usability – the government has only a minimal incentive to comply. If there is no statutory directive to be transparent or user-friendly, then they have even fewer incentives.
There are some ways to bring more sunshine, however:
– Citizen coders could start either a wiki or other technology that allows a distributed community to build a one-stop open source platform for state government information.
– Legislation might allow the government to contract a tech company to come in and do some work to unify the disparate legacy technologies that currently frustrate users.
– Active citizens could form a non-profit devoted to government transparency in North Carolina. The foci of this org could be technology and transparency.
– N.C. Universities could form a coalition/consortium that includes poli sci and computer science students working in collaboration to make government more transparent while giving students real world experience.
– The News & Observer could hold a contest for the best plan to increase transparency. Offer a prize of, say, $2000 and publish the best ideas.
– To repeat: big donors could donate to Civitas to flesh out Citizen Legislature to make it everything we (you) want it to be.
(Update: My 15 mins never felt so good. Plus, Beckwith is right: Gov’t has a disincentive to be more transparent. That’s why the people have to step in sometime clean house. Power to the people.)