May 30, 2010

The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland)

Troublemaker’ fights secrecy in government
The Capital(Annapolis, Maryland) publishes an article on J.H. Snider’s local open government efforts.

 

 

Eric Hartley, ‘Troublemaker’ fights secrecy in government,” Capital, May 30, 2010, p. C1.

 

Jim Snider has a theory about why it’s often so difficult to get information out of government agencies.

 

It goes like this: “The only people who want information are troublemakers.”

 

This, Snider believes, explains why he was regarded so suspiciously (and charged hundreds of dollars) when he asked for several years’ worth of County Council minutes. What was he up to, anyway?

 

Snider, who lives in Severna Park, is a political scientist by trade. He writes and speaks widely about “e-democracy” and has been a congressional staffer and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

 

Snider, 51, also trains his eye and pen on local politics, particularly the school system and county Board of Education. In his own professorial style, this rumpled academic is a relentless crusader for more information, better organized information and fewer barriers to access.

 

He scoffs at government officials’ excuses and explanations for not making information more accessible. And he exhibits a frank cynicism about their motivations.

 

Snider believes most bureaucrats and elected officials live by a philosophy he paraphrased from German sociologist Max Weber: “The less information you give out, the better off you are, period.”

 

Elected officials and staff deny up and down that they are secretive.

 

Bob Mosier, who as public information officer for county schools is often the target of Snider’s ire, said more things are going on the system’s website, aacps.org, all the time. Just recently, data on achievement, enrollment and out-of-area transfers were added to pages on individual schools in response to parent requests.

 

And Mosier, a former newspaper reporter and editor at The Capital and the Maryland Gazette, said his background as a journalist has led him to push employees to hand over information more readily.

 

What would government officials have to gain by making it difficult? In short, the more information you have, the easier it is to hold government officials accountable.

 

Snider competed for a seat on the school board and one in the House of Delegates, both in 2002. He lost, so he has concentrated on pushing for change as an outsider.

 

He runs a website called iSolon.org, named after the founder of Greek democracy, Solon, a hero of Snider’s. He said he operated his family dinner table as “an academic seminar,” and it showed. Two of his daughters, Pallas and Sage, served as student school board members.

 

Snider is now the vice chairman of the Citizen Advisory Committee, which gives regular reports to the school board.

 

He said he’s frustrated, though not surprised, by the pathetic level of citizen involvement in most civic bodies.

 

The county Board of Education gets to decide how to spend nearly $1 billion a year, yet for the most part only a few regulars show up at meetings. And almost no members of the public show up at the meetings of the School Board Nominating Commission, which picks school board members.

 

Why isn’t there more involvement or more outrage? Mainly because people don’t know what they don’t know.

 

Mosier said his office fields lots of requests for information of all kinds, so Snider is wrong to say only “troublemakers” want information.

 

“We’re getting more and more requests from parents as budgets get tighter and resources get more scarce and parents want to know why my child’s school can’t get funding until 2014,” he said, using a generic example.

 

But aside from reporters and parents with such concerns, the most frequent seekers of information include contractors who want details on construction projects, Mosier said. In other words, it’s mostly people with a vested interest who ask questions.

 

It’s true that a lot of routine information is released. But what about the information Mosier and his colleagues don’t want you to know?

 

Snider said he was once given a quote of $1 million when he requested school employees’ e-mails because he was seeking so many. School officials have said they can only keep most e-mail for 30 days because of technological limitations, and they charge a per-page fee for printouts of requested e-mails rather than providing them electronically.

 

If there was true dedication to openness, none of this would be the case.

 

For example, Google offers a free e-mail service to school systems that archives e-mails essentially forever and allows them to be searched in seconds by key word, date range, sender or recipient. Prince George’s County schools use this service, called Google Apps, in part because it makes it much easier to recover e-mail for investigations or legal discovery.

 

Snider sees some hope. As younger people who live online become parents, they will increasingly see how behind the times their government can be.

 

These issues can seem complicated. But Snider proposed a simple equation: “public = online.”

 

A lot of information is nominally public, but inaccessible in practical terms because of expense or some supposed technological hurdle.

 

If you can’t “Google the school board,” Snider said – and you cannot in any real sense – its work is not truly public.


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