Shopping for information with your tax money

03 December 2010

Author: eric

Shopping for information with your tax money


If you give your child 10 lari and tell her to go to the store to buy some bread, khachapuri and tomatoes, then when she returns you probably expect her to have bread, khachapuri, tomatoes and about five lari in change. If she came back with bread, tomatoes, and one lari, you'd probably expect one of two things to have happened. Either she paid too much for the food, or that she pocketed some of the money. In any case, you would not be happy with the results.

Likewise, when you pay taxes, you aren't simply giving money to the government. Your are investing in a result. Politicians make promises. And if you agree with those promises, then most likely you vote for them. When they are in office, you expect them to fulfill those promises. How do you know if they are really living up to your expectations? Public information and democracy Imagine you elect a mayor because she says, once elected, she will improve public schools throughout the city. Once in office, how do you know she is really improving schools and not simply buying her staff a fleet of BMWs?

Everything costs money and a surefire way to know what any politician is doing is to see how she spends money. More importantly, it is important to see how she spends YOUR money. To do that, you basically need access to the budget, the contracts made with third-party companies to improve the schools, the receipts of all purchases related to the project and evaluations of the finished products. Now, you can check to see if there has been an improvement at the schools, but what you need from the mayor are the budget, the contracts and all the relevant receipts.

Georgian legislation states that these items should be public. Any Georgian should, by way of a Freedom of Information request, go to the office of the mayor and request this information. Public information using today's technology Requesting public information today in many ways is obsolete. If information is public, then why should you need to go to an office and request from a clerk information that is already yours? What if you live in a remote village? Or physically can't walk? Today governments all over the world are making information public and easily accessible online. This is largely due to the fact that the technology has come of age, but more importantly, the public at large is putting pressure on their representatives to improve access to this information and services. The idea is that the information should be there automatically, unless there is a good reason it should not be public, not the other way around.

For too long the idea that most information shouldn't be readily available unless specifically requested has pervaded "business as usual" within government agencies and activities, thus limiting the public its ability to know, in truth, whether or not politicians are fulfilling the promises for which we elected them. Open technology, the maturation of web applications and the affordability and ubiquity of the World Wide Web have all helped to bring about this paradigm shift. While Georgia is a young democracy and a developing country, it, too, can benefit from these innovations and societal shifts. Like many countries that leap-frogged the landline to adopt mobile phone technology, Georgia is poised to don this new technology should it choose to do so. Unfortunately, it seems that these technologies are eluding Georgian agencies at the moment.

Transparency International Georgia recently wrote a blog in which it pointed out that the State Procurement Agency's new site, while flashy, is simply not as useful as it could be. And this could be said of many other sites as well. One of the maxim's we at JumpStart Georgia try to inculcate on Georgian technologists and organizations is that information and services don't have to be flashy to utilize modern web technologies. What is important is that they do what they are supposed to. You must always ask, what is the purpose of this website. Is it to provide public information? A service? Then it should do that first and foremost. You can always add a bit of flash later on.

A challenge

With this in mind, we at JumpStart Georgia would like to challenge Georgian government agencies, NGOs and all organizations whose purpose is to share information and provide public services to adopt the technologies that do just that and leave alone the ones that are obstacles to those goals. In future blogs we will discuss specific technologies that we use or would like to see in use that increase accessibility to information and data. More importantly, how to improve information flow that is so vital to a thriving democracy.