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Revamp government webpages to expand transparency

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 29, 2012 6:30 AM

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It's 2012; Iowa has debated a government-transparency bill since 2006. But if Iowans wish to check out their state's public records on the Internet today, they'll feel as though they're in 1995.

After six long years in the perverse womb that is the Iowa Legislature, a bill to create an Iowa Public Information Board may finally come to term.

Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, told IowaPolitics.com on Wednesday, "Iowans that I've talked to talk about transparency in their government. … I think the common, everyday Iowan needs one place to go to find out some of the answers."

To do that, the bill calls for board members to be appointed from seven different groups, ranging from the Iowa Association of School Boards to the Iowa Newspaper Association to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council — costing a total of $150,000

But perhaps a more effective means of delivery transparency would be to replace five of those members with two IT guys.

The Internet is the most cost-efficient and cost-effective means of transferring information. This has been the case for more than a decade now. It's ridiculous, even worrisome, that state and local governments continue to overlook the obvious benefits of the Internet when discussing transparency.

Six years ago, the Apple iPod Nano made its début, Craigslist finally got off the ground in more than 100 cities, and people still used AOL Instant Messenger. Technologically speaking, we have come a long way. In today's world, government should not only be transparent, it should come with a website, a user-friendly interface, and at least four apps.

The Information Board should not only address questions in a public forum, it should provide a single place at which people can go to get answers before questions are even asked. A simple search engine could save significant taxpayer money in administrative costs by answering questions with a click of a button.

Perhaps the most user-friendly government website available to Iowans is Iowa Courts Online, where Iowans can go to pay traffic tickets and view court-case results — both fundamental services the government can provide. But a trip to the website feels like a step inside a time machine to the early '90s — it's plain, inefficient, and seldom updated.

Though the state has an open-records law requiring government to provide freedom of information to its constituents, the board would provide more accountability to entities that are less than cooperative.

James Strohman, a former member of the Story County Board of Supervisors and proponent of the bill, said he battled with a group who fell into this category.

On the Board of Supervisors, he viewed all the decisions publicly made as "rubber stamps of things that were decided literally in a back room."

When he confronted the supervisors about being more open to the public, they conceded: "If we did all these things you said we should do, we couldn't conduct business."

Given new life by a new floor manager for the bill, the struggle may put a new face on the conflict between citizens and government institutions over transparency.

The Information Board may not be enough. It is meant to merely monitor other state entities, while addressing claims brought forth from constituents who feel they are being cheated out of information.

The board should utilize the Internet, embracing the modern age, in which more and more Americans are looking to the web for their news rather than going to the various biased news networks.

According to a national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of the people surveyed say they get most of their news about national and international issues from the Internet, closing the gap between it and television.

Furthermore, a different survey conducted by the same center also sheds light on the emerging role of the Internet as people seek local news and information.

For adults, generally, the Internet is a main source for information surrounding the community regarding restaurants and other local businesses. Interestingly enough, it is tied with newspapers as a top source for material about housing, jobs, and schools – areas that place a special value on consumer input in regard to community projects.

The Information Board should create a portal by which information-seeking Iowans can easily access information by simply typing into a search engine what exact information they are looking for, further streamlining the process of transparency.

But, like dial-up in the '90s, government may take way too long to load this issue, and we may just end up reading a newspaper for tidbits of government information.


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