On Monday, Cook County Commissioner Tony released his “transparency project,” CookCountyEmployees.com, a data base of names and salaries of some 25,000 County employees. Via Twitter, Peraica announced it as an “online database of county employees/vendors;” on Youtube he said it was “so that you know how your money is being spent” Peraica has stood out on the ethically-challenged Board for his crusade against corruption, and in favor of openness and “transparency.” He offers live reports, via Twitter, of Commission meetings, and uses YouTube to draw attention to the fiscal shenanigans of his colleagues on the Board.
Peraica’s goo-goo credentials are not in question. I do wonder, though, of the efficacy, and manners, of making publicly accessible a data base of County employees’ names and salaries. As Dan O’Neil, himself a leader in drive to make government data available and usable, often points out that most government employees do honest work that improves our lives. But I’m uncomfortable with the degree of transparency that CCE provides– the personal information almost feels hostile, and doesn’t carry with it the sense of appreciation and “gratitude” that undergirds related projects. More pragmatically, what value is it to me to know what nurse clinician B. Alston earns? Would it be more useful to know if she’s had any complaints, or commendations, filed recently? Of course, it I know she’s a Commissioner’s niece (she’s not, as far as I know), that could be interesting. As Carl Nyberg points out, however, “without knowing how people are connected, the data doesn’t tell the full story.”
The Internet’s potential for making government more open and responsive is of course exciting– even more so for those of us in Chicago. Perhaps my concerns about CookCountyEmployees.com and transparency are prosaic; perhaps they derive from the fact that I work in a sector that bends more to the opaque. In any case, we’re early in this government transparency game. In the end, we may decide that not all information is useful, or appropriate, to share.
[Update: On a higher plane, Joi Ito is doing some important out-loud thinking about innovation and government.]