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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Is the hype behind E-Government justified?

Before I begin, I would like to first thank Mr. Jacobs for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. Hopefully I can provide some new perspectives about government information through the eyes of an (aspiring) economist.

There is no doubt that E-Government is all the rage these days. One justification for E-Government is that technology makes government more transparent, and transparency deters corruption. To the best of my knowledge, there are actually few studies that look at whether E-Government actually prevents the government from behaving badly. There is one recent study by Anderson in Information Economics and Policy that attempts to identify this relationship.

Using an indexes for corruption and E-Government, he confirms that E-Government can indeed reduce corruption, even after “controlling for any propensity for corrupt governments to be more or less aggressive in adopting e-government initiatives.” (pg 210) A broader claim one may extrapolate from this study is that transparency prevents corruption.

E-Government acts as a mechanism for transparency, in a similar manner as media/press. That said, a study by Snyder and Stromberg finds that American politicians don’t work as hard (for their constituents) if they receive less press coverage.

One advantage of E-Government is that the government knows more about their inner workings than information starved reporters. The trade-off though is that government can cherry-pick what information is revealed; why would any rational corrupt government official agree to reveal information that supports claims of his bad behavior? To that end, reporters in search for political scandals are more likely to shine the light on bad behavior than E-Government.

A quick look at the bigger picture

For those of us who spend our lunchtimes wandering around the internet, TED Talks are an excellent and often-inspiring diversion. In a February 2010 talk, David Cameron discussed the relationship between politics and behavioral economics, arguing that the technology-driven empowerment of citizens ultimately increases their well-being.

Whether or not you agree with Cameron’s political perspective, and whether or not you agree with his assessment of human nature, his description of the relationship between “people power,” and transparency, choice, and accountability is an interesting one. He points to the Missouri Accountability Portal as an excellent example of public access to technology resulting in public empowerment.

Incidentally, Cameron promised a site that would track all government spending over £25,000, and all government contracts. Public spending data is now available in the Combined Online Information System (COINS) database. The UK government portal, direct.gov.uk, links to some guidance on using COINS, which indicates that the pledge about publicizing spending should be fulfilled by November 2010. It also indicates that user-friendly access options for some data subsets will be in place by August 2010.

You can watch the video here, or view the video with subtitles and an interactive transcript on the TED Talks site.

Ranking America

I came across Ranking America this evening. It provides information on the United States. Particularly, it compares America with other countries and also ranks it in terms of issues such as education, economy, environment etc. The information on this website has been compiled by Mark Rice, a professor of American Studies in a college in New York.

The Words They Used

The Words They Used, by MATTHEW ERICSON, New York Times, September 4, 2008. “The words that speakers used at the two political conventions show the themes that the parties have highlighted.”

This is a bubble graph of number of times words were used per 25,000 words spoken and a list of which speakers used which words. Ericson has done a good job of looking at phrases as well as individual words, of combining similar words and phrases, and of noting phrases that have very little or no use by one or both parties. Another good example of how, when we have access to the “raw data” (as opposed to transaction-based, search-and-retrieve, one-page-at-a-time access), the data can be used, re-used, and analyzed.

Political Fundraising? It’s Party Time!

The Sunlight Foundation has launched a new web site, Party Time!, which aims to document the political party circuit — not “political parties” as in “GOP” and “Democratic,” but parties as in champagne, food, golf… and money: “the social whirl surrounding politicians in their quests to raise cash to run their campaigns.”

There is a searchable database that lets you track parties thrown at the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions as well as fundraising activities by all lawmakers running for Congress that happen all year round going back to 2006.