Make Public Records Public

(with Gary Bloom)

In Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the protagonist (known as “K”) is summoned by authorities (a mysterious bureaucracy) to work as a land surveyor, but on his arrival, finds that he has not been hired. K spends most of the novel attempting to communicate with his contact in the bureaucracy and unsuccessfully trying to find his way into the bureaucracy’s office (the Castle). In The Castle, no one is evil; K is even accommodated to a degree by being given a different job. The bureaucratic opacity is just a fact of life, accepted — and defended — by the townspeople.

My take-away from the novel is that the growth of bureaucracy and opacity in government doesn’t need to stem from a big, evil plot, and doesn’t need to present itself in a big (or small) evil manner. It usually just evolves, incrementally, while we are busy working at our jobs and raising our children — and by we I mean government employees as well as citizens.

A large element of bureaucracy stems from our natural tribalism, where we (i.e., humans) identify ourselves as belonging to groups: Red Sox and Yankees’s fans; Northern Californians and Southern Californians; British and Germans; Hindus and Buddhists; or, in our case, city employees and citizens. We don’t need to work at this us/them separation, it just happens.

To keep that natural separation at bay, (and subsequent bureaucracy and opacity) requires not just resistance, but conscious effort. Rather than try to stop opacity, it is better to create practices of transparency. How to do that? Currently, the City has private records — human-resource related, and some legal issues. Most everything else are public records, which are available by request. The problem of records available by request is that you need to know what you’re looking for to get at them — they’re public, but camouflaged. Where’s Waldo is a fun game for little kids, but a lousy design for public records.

Here’s how you do transparency for public records: make the City’s file cabinet a website — not just any website, but a wiki website, which is designed for easy search. What’s a wiki? I bet you use this one often. The software used by Wikipedia.org is free, easy to install, and even has tools to make it easier to use or migrate to, such as a Microsoft Word Doc-to-MediaWiki exporter.

In any case, the above is not meant to be a blueprint, but a guideline. The important element is not just talking about transparency, but creating tools to make it the default. So, how will we know when our City’s information is sufficiently transparent? Easy: when City staff are using the same source to get their information as the citizens of Edmonds.

Why is this important? The focus on transparency has been primarily on issues of the City budget, and for good reason. But transparency goes beyond finances. In a totalitarian government, the government monitors the people. There’s a book about that. In a democracy, citizens monitor the government — and to do so, is good practice for citizenship, even when it’s local government. Why shouldn’t Edmonds be a model to emulate?

For more on transparency in government: Open Government Initiative.