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.

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