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.
Chuck Sheketoff is executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.