As the Legislature gathers in St. Paul this week my focus is on the maze of information issues embedded throughout state and local government – open government, accountability, transparency, data collection, preservation, access, affordability, broadband, the list goes on. In truth, information/communications issues undergird every bill, every vote and every citizen’s interaction with elected officials and the state, regional and local agencies for which the state sets policy and establishes budgets. For several hours I even struggled with the desultory task of writing about information policy and procedures, legal rights and how to find state government information.
Weary of the topic of access to government information I stepped back to “re-imagine” the playing field. By today’s rules, government information providers are lined up on one side of a perceived line; the keepers are rich with data, overwhelmed by ubiquitous information and communications technology, and burdened with legal mandates. On the other side the information seekers are lined up — parents, small business owners, health care planners, caregivers, homeowners worried about pollution in the neighborhood; the seekers are unfamiliar with the rules, the structures, the pathways to information, and their rights to access to information by and about the government. It’s a game that subtly pits keepers against seekers, a game in which neither the rules nor the goals are understood.
Imagine a Minnesota in which keepers and seekers joined forces to work in tandem towards a common purpose. The rewards of collaboration in the information game are both unique and generous, precisely because the information rules of the game are antithetical to traditional zero sum thinking. The unique character of the information resource are that:
- Information is not an end in itself but a means to an end — answering a health care issue, cleaning up a waste site, creating an arts community, selecting a school board member, building a transit system or managing a drug store on Main Street. The product of good information is a wise decision, a new connection or a great idea.
- Information shared is information expanded (“like a kiss” as Harlan Cleveland told us long ago.)
Sharing a goal casts sharing information in a different light. That shared goal ultimately, if implicitly, flows from the premise that the state will thrive if the people of Minnesota harness the power of good and accessible information to create a more vital economy, a first rate education system, affordable health care, a cleaner environment, livable communities, an electorate who know the issues and the options.
Though I’m still working on that user guide to state government information it’s with a re-kindled spirit that positions keepers and seekers on the same team aiming for a common goal.