Monthly Archives: December 2013

Information Format – A cautionary note from James Madison

Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1814 the President of the United States was James Madison. Technologically deprived as Madison was, he managed to leave an indelible mark on the new nation’s thinking about open government.    Reflect for a moment on these prescient snippets:

In an 1825 letter to his colleague George Thomas Madison wrote the words that every open government advocate can quote from memory:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Not so well known are Madison’s thoughts on information format buried as Number 62 in the Federalist Papers:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood

Even as I embrace the former, in this digital era I am increasingly concerned about the latter.  There is a mighty chasm between that which is available and that which is accessible to “a people who mean to be their own Governors.”

My concern is that the wealth of information by and about the government is in danger of being walled off simply because it is produced in a format that is not readily accessible to the public.  Though the agencies will continue to do the research and post the results, those of us who need the information will not have ready access.  Though government information cannot be copyrighted the possibility remains that it can be withheld by the technology which, powerful as it may be, remains out of reach until the information is “translated” – at a cost – by commercial interests.

It’s a case of the law lagging behind the technology while the private sector is ever at the ready to seize the moment.  Essential information by and about the government, collected, organized, and interpreted by the government, belongs to the body politic.  If those resources “be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood,” we the people are no longer able to arm ourselves with ”the the power which knowledge gives.”

After two centuries, the words and wisdom of President James Madison, now available in the format du jour, raise a cautionary note for open government advocates for whom constant vigilance is a way of life.


Sharing the Bounty: A Day in the Life of a Food Shelf Manager

Note:  As families and friends gather to enjoy the feasts of this holiday season it is a privilege to know and share the story of one man who spends his long days making sure that everyone in the community shares both the bounty and the love of their neighbors.  ~ ~ ~

Scott Andrews is the energetic manager responsible for providing a warm welcome and wholesome food to the families of northern Dakota County (MN) who depend on Neighbors, Inc.

7:30 AM

The volunteers have already been at Cub Foods and Super Target where they have picked up and now delivered fresh produce, dairy products, fresh and frozen meat products.  This morning the Boy Scouts have dropped off an impressive load of canned goods plus a check they have collected at their weekend food drive.   Scott is psyched for a busy day – it’s the first of the month.

8:00 AM:

Scott is joined by Linda, a volunteer who has kept the food shelf running on an even keel for over thirty years.  Linda’s husband has already been on volunteer duty with the crew at Cub.

8:30 AM

Before the doors open to clients, a second crew of volunteers come on board.  This crew will sort the fresh produce, bag some, cull out the not-so-fresh, and create a tempting display of nutritious veggies for the shoppers.  They will also weigh the canned goods, scratch off the bar codes and check the expiration dates to assure quality control.  They’ll package the fresh meat in family-size amounts, bag the apples and oranges  (if there is fresh fruit today), check the eggs, refrigerate the dairy products, prepared salads and dairy treats, wash the veggies, shelve the fresh baker products and otherwise present the clients with a display of food that is as attractive as it is wholesome.

Meanwhile, clients are arriving at the reception desk upstairs.  Families wait patient as busy staffers check their ID’s and verification documents.  Each family must be recertified once a month.  Hungry children examine the picture books and squirm impatiently as they wait foe the grownups to complete the necessary paperwork.  Moms and dads wait patiently to go through the hoops required to put healthy food on the family table.  Elderly folks help keep an eye on the little ones, thinking fondly of their own grandchildren.

9:00 AM:

The food shelf phones begin to ring- and the action begins.  The families whose credentials are in order after they have met with the intake staff are ready to shop.  Spirits rise ad the customers enter the food shelf, clutching wiggly kids and free-wheeling grocery carts, eager to explore their shopping options.

The little ones are quick to spy the breakfast cereal and peanut butter that are in stock this week.  The moms catch a sidelong glimpse of the shampoo and scented soaps that donors have toted back from their hotel stays.

A volunteer interrupts her work to help a dad whose having a struggle with four-year-old twins.  She finds a picture book to share with the boys so the dad can shop and get to work on time.

10:30 AM:

Scott scans the shelves to make sure the labels are up to date and clearly displayed.  Because Neighbors is an “open choice” food shelf customers, with the help of volunteers, can select their own grocery items – ever dependent on what’s available that day.  Each shelf is meticulously labeled so that the clients know exactly how many of “product X” they may selection a family of “Y” members.  One of Scott’s jobs is to make sure that the labels on the shelves reflect the changes in supply.  Unlike the supermarket manager he has little control over available commodities.

Another team of volunteers arrives.  Scott reassesses the tasks and the team as he lays out the work plan for the next shift.  Over the course of the week Scott will see to it that each of the sixty food shelf volunteers has a job that fits his or her skill and interests.

Today there are donations to be weighed and entered in the data base.  Every ounce of food that comes in is weighted.  Every donor is to be credited and individually thanked.


Volunteers share a  pleasant break in the day by helping a family celebrate a birthday!  The intake person who follows the family’s record has alerted Scott that the little girl is celebrating her sixth birthday.  A volunteer finds a decorated cake donated by a local grocery store.  Cake and candles in hand, the family heads home to share a special evening.

 ~ ~ ~

And so the day goes – the volunteer shifts manage the steady flow of food and families.  Scott attends a staff meeting, completes the food orders for the near future, checks the shelves, reviews the raft of  health regulations,  struggles with the budget, chats with the  volunteers and welcomes a constant flow of customers with a warm smile.

Food shelf management doesn’t require a degree from the Culinary Institute of America or experience as a sommelier — in fact there is no formally accredited academic program geared to the vocation.  Still, Scott’s skill set bears a strong resemblance to that of a master restaurateur with a flair for customer care and stretching a dollar.  He knows food – the nutritional value, the cost, the availability, the presentation of the product.  Because he has little control over the sources or selection of the food he provides his clients, Scott explores creative techniques to make a pre-selected menu of wholesome food products irresistible.  As a result, he calculates that 87% of the food selections by his food shelf clients are distinctly healthy choices.

Dependent on the generosity of individual and institutional donors, Scott doesn’t enjoy the luxury of daily trips to the farmers’ market – though he welcomes with open arms the produce contributed by vendors at the end of the day’s market.  He  doesn’t order delicacies from the fresh fish purveyor or offer exotic taste treats to his customers.  His greatest asset is a staff of dependable volunteers who work because they care and because their efforts make a difference for members of the community.    It is up to Scott to “keep things interesting.”

Food shelf management is not one of the professional paths a talented youth is likely to pursue.  Scott himself did not exactly choose the career he now loves.  His degree from Northern Michigan University was in Spanish and International Studies.  It was during his stint as a youth ministry volunteer in Costa Rica that he mastered his language skills and learned to enjoy working with volunteers.  He is quick to point out, too, that the time he spent as a laborer in a gasket factory was great preparation for managing the food shelf inventory.

And this rich range of experience forged a flexible attitude perfectly suited to the lively food shelf environment.  Though it may not be a paved road to the pinnacle of the hospitality industry, it works for Scott – and for the Neighbors community that is enriched by the talents and the spirit with which he meets the shifting challenges of each day.






U.S. Department of Labor (& Lit?) Marks a Centennial of Work in America

Putting a face on government information offers some delightful surprises! Thanks to National Public Radio Weekend Edition (which btw is supported in part with federal funds) I just learned about the United States Department of Labor’s commemoration of their Centennial year.    In March 1913 President William Howard Taft signed the legislation that established the DOL, Taft was on his way out and the establishment of DOL marked a triumph for the Progressive movement that was on the ascendancy with the election of Woodrow Wilson.

To celebrate its roots DOL might have created a massive bibliography of the countless books by and about the Department’s century of achievement.  Instead, in partnership with the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, DOL launched an open-ended campaign to identify a list of Books that Shaped Work in America.

The intent of the project is to ignite a lively national conversation about the impact of books on American life – with an obvious emphasis on books related to work in America.   The promotional material from DOL notes that “it was the wide range of books with work as a central theme that really served to underscore the significant role published works have played in shaping American workers and workplaces.”

Like any good list builder, DOL primed the bibliographic pump.  They asked a cross-section of Americans – politicians, writers, bureaucrats and others – to think about the books that have shaped Americans’ attitudes towards labor.  There are the obvious – e.g. Barbara Ehrenreich’s  Nickle and Dimed, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged along with a host of less obvious titles that have captured the attention of readers.  And there are children’s books such as Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town and Doreen Cronin’s very funny Click, Clack, Moo-Cows That Type.

Carl Fillichio, who oversees the DOL project, avers that his pick is Moby Dick.  You can hear his rationale and his enthusiasm for the project in his interview with Jennifer Ludden on NPR’s Sunday Edition for December 29, 2013.

All of the responses, with photos and information about the readers and their choices are posted on the DOL website.

Better yet, the website invites all readers to name their own pick.   Join the conversation by posting your choice.  The very simple form is also on the website where readers will be advised that “of course, the list of Books that Shaped Work in America is, and always will be, a work in progress, since – like America itself – work is constantly changing and evolving.”



Open Government – Putting a Face on an Implicit Right

December 24, 2013

Dear readers:  First and most important, happy holidays to all!  I am being really negligent this season about cards and greetings – with some reason but it still makes me sad.  I will do better during the holidays.

The reason, or at least the alibi, is that I am hard at work in my new position that is pretty much overwhelming all else for the moment.  The learning curve and the enormity of the task are a bit overwhelming.

As I mentioned since November 15 I’m the new Outreach Coordinator at  This is a national association of “civic society” groups committed to access to information by and about the federal government – a well nigh infinite category of information.   One current focus is on the National Action Plan for Open Government which was issued earlier this month by the White House.  OTG is also coordinating US. agencies’ response to the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative.   I’ll follow up with a brief fact sheet that will give the basics as well as the National Action Plan and the Open Government Partnership.  Please share them all through your many channels.

Like a kid with a hammer thinking everything is a nail, my eyes and ears are tuned into federal information everywhere these days – from the labels on kids’ toys to wikileaks to who pays for federal research being conducted at the U of M to immigration, water quality and fracking!  Government information is everywhere one looks – and if it isn’t there may be something to be done about that.

So that’s my job – to make people aware of how dependent we are on good information collected, organized, processed and made available in useful format by the federal government.

One thing I need is stories – stories of information you’ve used encounters with FOIA, educational tests, maps, food safety, SNAP, wherever you see room for improvement, gaps or ways information could be more accessible.   Seriously!  If you have contacts or resources in other parts of the country, agencies,  at the federal level, I would appreciate your letting me know.

Keep your eyes and ears open for stories – good and bad stories – that “put a face” on open government.  I would be grateful for any help you may be able to offer.  Parables work best!

Needless to say, this may slow but it will not stymie my penchant for Poking Around!  It’s a challenging position but a grand chance to learn and share – with your help we can raise public consciousness of just how critical open government is in life in this dynamic democracy.!