By Tom Still
MADISON – Abandoned and failed information technology programs have cost state government tens of millions of dollars in recent years, a trend that has some members of the Legislature wondering if it’s time to hire a bunch of computer-savvy 15-year-olds to reprogram the whole mess.
There’s probably no need to hit the “Control Z” keys to undo all of state government’s cut-and-paste IT operations. Instead, lawmakers should look for best practices and learn from them. The Wisconsin Ethics Board web site (http://ethics.state.wi.us/) offers an innovative yet inexpensive guide to using the power of information to enhance democracy.
In an era when many people say government is too opaque for the average citizen to understand, the state Ethics Board site has used basically off-the-shelf software to open a window on the inner workings of state government.
The Ethics Board site is where anyone – citizens, press, legislators and lobbyists – can go to:
§ Discover which organizations are registered to lobby in
§ View an index of officials’ financial relationships. Discover which officials file Statements of Economic Interests and request an official’s Statement.
§ View an extensive library of guidelines that offer advice and interpretation of the Code of Ethics and the Lobbying Law. Obtain lobbying forms, financial disclosure forms, and instructions.
§ Review standards of conduct for state government officials, lobbyists and local government officials.
Even though the state Ethics Board launched its site in 1999 and has been constantly upgrading it since, no other state (or nation) offers a comparable service.
“Lobbyists-on-Line (is) unlike anything accomplished in other states,” wrote David C. King, an associate professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The web-based resource provides up-to-date on-line summaries of who’s lobbying whom and which companies and interest groups are behind legislative bills and agency rules.”
In a report issued several years ago, King noted that compliance among lobbyists is high, as lobbyists monitor competitors for potential violations. Legislators on opposite sides are quick to point out when opponents are not accurately reporting their time and money, he added, and the press uses the site to find information about various stories.
The site is probably least used by average citizens. “Web usage statistics show very little activity from the public. I would encourage the site to be ‘marketed’ to high school civics teachers and local civic groups,” King wrote.
The best news is how little it cost. Roth Judd, executive director of the Ethics Board, built the original site for about $20,000, including the “Lobbyists-on-Line” function. The index to public officials’ financial interests was built with a grant from the Joyce Foundation, and the site will soon rebut an index to state procurement activity, listing state purchases by agency, by value, by commodity and service, by sole source contacts and by change orders. That will cost about $30,000, Judd said.
State government had long collected information about lobbyists and officials’ financial interests, but it like the warehouse scene at the close of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Finding a specific file in a storehouse of non-descript files was difficult.
“I was not content to preside over a warehouse,” Judd said. “I saw my mission as making the information used and useful or to stop collecting it… I was interested in disseminating information that would inform and affect public policy in the weeks and months ahead, not collecting information about what lobbyists did last year.”
The Ethics Board’s website has essentially ended “stealth lobbying,” in which shadowy figures make undocumented overtures to legislators. Through it, anyone can figure out who is playing in the public policy sandbox and what they are working on. Perhaps other state IT purchases haven’t paid off, but this one pays dividends to our democracy every day.
Still is president of the