Picture This Government Web sites are for the people not incumbent office-holders

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, October 24, 2002

URL: sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2002/10/24/govtsites.DTL

Quick, what do the Web sites of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors have in common?

The answer: Both have been designed with a similar purpose in mind: to help keep the current holders of those offices in power.

The same is true of a wide variety of U.S. government Web sites across the country, including those for school boards, community college districts, city councils and major state agencies. Few contain the basic data and user-friendly resources voters have a right to expect. Instead, it’s more common to see them festooned with an appalling assortment of inappropriate material such as photos of incumbent office holders, self-serving bios and lists of claimed accomplishments. Meanwhile, information about the offices themselves, or features that encourage the new forms of public participation that the Internet makes possible, is usually far less conspicuous, if available at all.

What if, for example, government Web sites offered a feature that connected people who have similar concerns and helped them band together to address their problems?

People who send e-mail to their local board of supervisors because they are concerned about bicycling issues could be offered a chance to join an online group working to make bike lanes safer and more numerous. Residents worried about public safety in a particular area could be put in touch with like-minded neighbors who together could create a stronger and more cohesive local crime-reduction team. City halls and other government agencies could use the Internet to help organize and facilitate a wide variety of bottom-up groups to tackle whatever problems are at hand. In the process, local government would once again begin to resemble old-fashioned New England-style town-hall meetings, where public participation really matters, rather than the top-down systems driven by campaign fund-raising that have turned nonmonetary forms of citizen input into a quaint anachronism.

Unfortunately, little if any progress along those lines is taking place, because too many elected officials are using the Internet primarily as a public-relations vehicle.

One of the more eye-catching examples of this sorry trend occurred earlier this year, when a member of California Gov. Gray Davis’ administration issued rules that required state employees to place Davis’ picture on every single one of the approximately 100 home pages run by the state, ranging from the home page for the Department of Motor Vehicles to that of the State Energy Commission.

Sadly, there are no regulations that prevent public government Web sites such as these from being hijacked by officeholders for what are essentially personal political uses, an activity that would be clearly illegal if it were happening offline. If an elected official tried, for example, to drape a banner with his or her picture on it over the state Capitol building, the police would yank it down and cite the offender. But online, the puff pieces proliferate.

In the United States, according to our Constitution, the people are sovereign, which means they are supposed to be in charge.

That’s why government Web sites should be about giving voters access to the information they need to run their government rather than engaging in the type of mandatory public veneration of leaders that is more characteristic of totalitarian societies.

The American public would be far better served by an approach that is more consistent with our form of government — namely, participatory democracy.

Here in the United States, government Web sites belong to the office, not the officeholder. At a bare minimum, they should at least explain how and when elected officials can be replaced.

At present, most government Web sites omit or deeply bury that information, in part because no rules require its inclusion.

In fact, the average student-government Web site often does a far better job of conveying the requirements to run for office and the applicable deadlines and procedures. Up in the big leagues, though, they obviously prefer to play things a bit closer to the vest.

One predictable excuse elected officials may offer is that instructing people how to run for office is the responsibility of each county’s elections department. Unfortunately, most of those sites omit that data as well. San Francisco’s Department of Elections Web site, for example, contains tons of instructions about how people can register to vote but nothing — at least that I could find — about what voters can do if they don’t like the voting choices. The same is true of most of the other local election-department Web sites I’ve reviewed in recent days.

To be sure, providing people with the instructions they need to run for office won’t by itself bridge the growing gap between public needs and government actions. But it would be a good place to start, and an important step in that direction. Admittedly, doing so might make it slightly easier for kooks to muck up the process with flippant candidacies — but that seems a small price to pay in exchange for a more vibrant and inclusive democracy.

Right now, for understandable reasons, most people see government as the realm of the insider. The lack of transparency about how and when elections are held and how candidates can qualify to run is one brick in that wall. Many able people who might consider running for office, or who might encourage qualified friends to do so, don’t have the foggiest idea about the pertinent details, such as how filing fees (charged to candidates) can be avoided or reduced by using nominating petitions, or the fact that filing deadlines are sometimes extended when incumbents choose not to run.

That’s one reason it’s not surprising that political candidates usually come from within the small group of connected individuals who already know the rules. It’s not hard to figure out whose interests are served by hiding those procedures from the rest of the public, or, at the very least, by making them much more difficult to find than is necessary.

Fortunately, it will be easy to turn this situation around with some basic, cheap and easy-to-implement reforms.

First, incumbent officeholders should be prohibited from using government Web sites to promote themselves. Instead, they should be allowed to post only content directly relevant to the performance of their duties, such as contact information, lists of times they are available to meet with or talk to constituents and explanations of current projects, proposals or initiatives they are undertaking. Lists of what they see as their prior accomplishments, by contrast, belong on Web sites they or their campaigns pay for. Ditto with their mug shots or any other praise they may wish to lavish on themselves.

Likewise, all government Web sites should also be required to list detailed information that tells the public how and when individuals can mount electoral challenges for those posts.

The main goal of these reforms would be to make government leaders understand that the Internet is not just a new type of electronic billboard they can exploit for their own narrow political purposes. If we can drive that lesson home, the best of them might even start thinking anew about how the enormous power of the Net could be used in better, more innovative ways to improve communities and bring them together in common purpose.

The Internet is the best tool yet invented to increase citizen involvement in government.

But before that can happen, the public will have to take its Web sites back.

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