Monday, July 03, 2006

Are We Just Voting Mushrooms?

I believe that our county leaders think we are mushrooms .... because they want to keep us in the dark and feed us bullcr%p.

I recently got an email from the Prince George's County Board of License Commissioners, aka the liquor board, because I asked to be kept informed about upcoming hearings after the Club Amazon debacle.

Unfortunately, the staffer at the commissioner's office sent the email with every one's email address exposed in the to: line. It's really not her fault. The Prince George's County Government simply doesn't want to make information easily available to its citizens.

The email contained the entire docket for the next two hearings. It would be so much better if the PG County government would just let me subscribe to a simple web service that would inform me via email when any liquor license is under review in zipcode(s) of my choice.

This highlights a much bigger problem in Prince George's County. Have you ever tried to find useful county data? I mean something more useful than Jack Johnson's photo.

For example, who holds liquor licenses in the county? How many violations do they have? Can you easily cross reference the license holders and their affiliates to any campaign donors?

But it's not just liquor licenses. Just try to find the email address of a county official. I wanted to complain about this problem but I could not find the email address for Mr. Charles W. Wilson, the Director Office of Information Technology and Communications. We pay for their computers and blackberries, we should be able to send any county employee an email and expect a response. That is the policy in the City of Laurel.

It gets worse. Do you want to know how your precinct voted last election? Then you'll need to buy this information. It's ridiculous to buy information that your tax dollars already paid to collect!

It's time for our elected officials and candidates to demand that all public government information is made freely available via the web. The technology is here. All we need is a commitment to full electronic transparency in our government. The rule should be, when in doubt, put it out!

Oh by the way, I use the campaign websites of our local candidates to get an idea how well they understand how people use the internet to find information. It is an indicator of how well that they will demand full electronic transparency. Most of you who read this blog might feel the same way. Here are the factors I use to figure out if the campaign site is more than just an electronic billboard?

  • How current is the info?
  • Is it as easy to send them an email as it is to send them a contribution?
  • Do they answer the email promptly?
  • Or do they make you use a lame web form?
  • Do they have meaningful issue papers?
  • Do they have a blog?
  • Do they post regularly to their blog?
  • Can you subscribe to get tailored information?
  • Is the information relevant and timely for voters?
  • Do they have a Spanish language version? (This may be a pro or a con for you.)
  • Do they provide links to additional information sources?

Here are some local campaign sites for your review. You should be able to tell very quickly which candidates "get" the web. (I'm not associated with any campaign.)

Here are some additional useful sites that I found that cover PG County politics.

Write these candidates and tell them if you think their websites are lame or useful. Let them know that you believe that all publicly accessible government information should always be available via the internet.

The standard should be that if you can get the information in person, you should be able to get that same information via the web for free.

No more web manure!


Anonymous said...

Bravo, Ricardo.

Keep banging the "transparency" drum. I think you are right: some of our leaders don't want an informed electorate. And to that end they are exploiting the polarity of the Internet. The growing vastness of information on the Internet creates a dichotomy between people willing to explore it, and those who are reluctant to, who want the Internet Cliff Notes, or Internet-Lite. And unfortunately, the impression I'm getting lately is that the latter is in the majority. The easier it gets to access information, it seems the less willing many people are to do so.

I don't know whether it is a societal ADD, or information overload or what. But it's not just the politicians that are exploiting our cultural attention span - the media are as well. Advertisers are considering one second commercials? One second! That borders on subliminal (The upside of course, is that you could literally blink and miss it). You know the pols will be first in line for something that cost effective and obviously targeted at the impatient and overloaded masses.

Our cultural attention span is why mainstream news has been truncated, why political debates have been dumbed down, and why politicians are able to build not only campaigns, but platforms on sound bites and simplistic images.

Mushrooms indeed.

Keep up the good work, Rick.

Mike McLaughlin

Rick Wilson said...

Thanks Mike. The tide is changing to empower citizens. Check out this site:

Rick Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gale said...

Hi Rick,

Psssst...there's this really wonderful, often overlooked government service that is delighted to give away all kinds of information for FREE! Believe it or not, courtesy of your tax dollars, professional librarians will actually track down all kinds of obscure information for you.

Here is the email address for Charles W. Wilson:
Charles W. Wilson, Director (301) 952-5150

As for the liquor board hearings, you can get a list of scheduled hearings and agendas at this page:

I'm not sure exactly what election statistics you are looking for, but try this link:


Gale said...

oops those addresses got cut off in posting...try again

Rick Wilson said...


Thanks for the information. I appreciate your point that a librarian can find all kinds of info. My goal is to make sure that ALL government information is:

1. Available on the net by default and at no cost.

2. Easily discoverable by common search and browse tools (w/o the need of a professional librarian).

3. Available via subscription. E.g., Perhaps I'm interested in all liquor license transactions in the following zip codes 20707, 20708, 20723. I should be able to subscribe to this information.

I think this philosophy should apply at all levels of government, city, county, state, and federal. For example, The complete line item level details of the Laurel City Budget, not just the summary, should be published and updated on the city web site.

I think this is all about philosophy rather than technology. There are obviously certain categories of information that must remain private, e.g., public safety info, personnel info, and personally identifiable data.

But everything else should be made available as an artifact of just doing government business. The cost of publishing all available government information is only a tiny fraction greater than publishing a little bit of information. The IT infrastructure and production costs are already sunk. E.g. the detailed Laurel City Budget is already produced electronically, the additional cost of making it available in addition to the summary document is negligible. Why not publish it.

Thanks for reading the Laurel Connections Blog!

Gale said...


In reply to #2, I DID use common search tools--Google! There's a reason that professional searchers exist beyond all the old maid and "shush" jokes.

I understand your frustrations about information retrieval in a day when it seems that almost anything is possible. However, as someone who works for a county government agency, I understand that due to budgets and staffing, the wheels turn very slowly. I think we will one day get to where you want to be with information retrieval, but most local agencies just can't get there yet. IT departments are often struggling just to maintain the status quo.