42: not the answer to life, the universe, and everything

There’s been very little coverage of California’s Proposition 42, which many voters have already voted for or against (or ignored) on their mail-in ballots and which many more will vote on, on June 3.  Both locally and nationally, this small but significant tinkering with local government accountability has largely gone unmentioned, leaving it to mostly pro-42 groups to promote it in a frankly pretty shallow way. There’s the expected glossy description from the official website for passing the proposition, which appears to have the same hosting company as this baffling site. Beyond that sort of expected oddness, there’s only been the occasional editorial in favor of it, most noticeably from a local paper and an online news source. The latter in particular, an overtly libertarian-leaning outfit, reveals a lot of the subtle politics at play.

That piece cuts to the heart of the matter, while acknowledging that it doesn’t actually change current laws about what information local governments have to provide so much as the means by which they can inform the public:

“At the root of of the disconnect between California’s ambitious open information laws and their practical application is that fact that local agencies don’t always have to comply with the laws if they’re not being reimbursed for doing so. In the current climate of budgetary belt-tightening, this can effectively block public access to government records. [… Proposition 42 resolves that] by eliminating the requirement that the state reimburse local governments and agencies for complying with records requests or public meeting information.”

Instead of considering that this will result in already tight county budgets suddenly becoming even more inadequate, the article paints a rosy picture of near-inevitable results:

“If you’re still awake, you might be wondering where the money will come from. And that is where this humble little proposition gets interesting. If 42 passes, and current polling indicates that it will, it will create an incentive for governments at all levels to preempt freedom of information requests and the costs of responding by simply publishing their data online. ‘It would be a lot cheaper to release public information as data, rather than have someone at City Hall processing these requests and eventually Xeroxing swaths of information,’ says Robb Korinke of Grassroots Lab, a public affairs firm that is supporting the measure.”

In other words, unlike the prior attempt at dismantling requests for information that resulted in an outcry from many media outlets, this one will ostensibly result in at least some counties using this sort of high-tech solution to the problem. The solution is being touted as a cheap one, but for whom? Even assuming this doesn’t majorly impact the finances of counties (who pay for large numbers of staff to provide educational, medical, and social services to their residents in the state), who is going to have the time and resources to dig through websites? Remember, this is information that supposedly counties don’t want to provide people with – it being online doesn’t necessarily mean easily and transparently accessible on a website that makes clear what information it contains. Information can and (assuming there’s an interest in hiding it) probably will be as hidden in plain sight as possible.

(Open data begs the question of – open to whom? Image from here.)

The fact is that this specific proposal is designed to make it easy for people with a lot of free time and technology on their hands (or who look through public records for their job) to find stuff. It’s overtly not designed with a person who, for example, works in a non-technological field for most of their day and doesn’t own (for any number of reasons, most obviously cost) a personal computer. Lugging themselves down to their local library after a shift is probably easier than attempting to wrangle all the forms needed to request information, but keep in mind that this is all being done at the risk of the social services many people like that depend on. It might make the information easier for everyone to find, but it’s going to make having the time and resources to access it potentially much harder for some.

The local news article contained an admission of sorts about how wrong-headed this approach to the system is. It notes that “it costs more time and energy to file the paperwork for reimbursement than what an agency typically gets back” and that “there are so many rules and regulations to meet the qualifications for reimbursement that there wouldn’t be much at stake in the end if the option were to be taken away.” In other words, the system is definitely broken, and our solution is to cut funding further. What’s not being considered is a new state law to separately fund a drive to put as much information online as possible or to generally improve the reimbursement system or ideally both.

Tellingly, the article notes that as a result of “financial difficulty, the state hasn’t always been able to pay in a timely matter or at all, thereby giving these agencies reason not to comply with such laws”. To be blunt, what financial difficulty? California is flush with cash at the moment. Now is precisely the time to create a fund for a specified and separate online program in addition to existing programs that create ways for people to get information online. Or to hire a group of people to reexamine the reimbursement system. Or otherwise pay with the funds we have to strengthen a culture of accountability (which, hopefully, will mean continued prosperity). None of those alternatives have been even remotely explored or even acknowledged by the few people talking about this. Instead, we’ve gotten glowing reviews of the proposition from the tech-oriented libertarians and professional journalists who would stand to benefit the most from this law and risk the least.

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