I always look forward to reading look forward to reading “Watchdog,” the government transparency column from Thomas Peele, who is hands-down my favorite journalist in the Bay Area. Public records and open government may not be the sexiest of topics to read about, but they are the bedrock of quality local news. Without the longtime efforts of people like Peele, the coverage myself and other local bloggers provide would be much more difficult, if not impossible.
I was especially pleased to see in Sunday’s column that Peele has decided to take an exciting step towards embracing new technology to enhance citizen access to government information, and has placed the Statement of Economic Interests of some of our elected officials online. These statements are already, of course, readily available to anyone who goes to ask for them, but true transparent government isn’t just about making information available, it’s about making it easily accessible, and until cities and states make the leap to providing this information in more findable formats, it’s wonderful to see local media stepping up to fill the void.
I think, in this case, the effort could probably have been handled better – the statements aren’t what I would call particularly findable on the Trib’s website, and it’s mostly Statewide officials, plus the Mayor and most of the Oakland City Council (all of which are grouped in one long document, rather than browseable individually). Add to that the fact that the documents are being held in a weird storage system where viewing isn’t what I would call particularly user-friendly, and I have to register for an account if I want to download them and read them easily on the computer. It may not seem like a terribly big deal, but on the web, you lose users with every single step you make them take. So as far as practical accessibility from a user perspective goes, I’d probably give this effort a C.
But these are the sort of things you learn with experience, and if BANG decides to embrace (as I hope they will) Peele’s commitment to making this information more public, I expect we will see improvements in the interface over time. So, hooray for Thomas Peele and I’m going to cross my fingers and hope the paper follows his lead and starts offering more of this sort of information and figures out a more user-friendly way of presenting it.
And for all you Dellums watchers out there, here’s a tidbit from the column you might fight interesting:
It always makes me curious when major politicians don’t report anything on their annual statement.
No reportable gifts, free travel, investments, loans or business interests?
Oakland Mayor Ronald V. Dellums reported that he had nothing to disclose on his statement for 2008.
The idea that the mayor of a major American city could go a calendar year without attending one function where someone else paid for a meal is intriguing. So is the idea that no one gave the mayor a gift for a full year.