Michael Robertson Facing Resistance To New Gov't Transparency Project
from the sunlight-is-tough dept
Over the last few years, there have been a number of important efforts to increase transparency, openness and accountability from the government — often by concerned citizens. For example, there have been things like the Sunlight Foundation, as well as efforts by people like Carl Malamud to digitize and make available all sorts of government information. There have also been some specifically targeted projects, such as the effort by some grad students at Princeton to put together the RECAP project to make court documents more easily accessible for free. And, of course, there have been high profile projects such as Wikileaks, which is often looking for leaked, rather than officially obtained, government information.
It looks like serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson is about to get into the game as well. He’s planning to launch the “Naked Government,” project in the near future. The idea is to catalog public documents, demand more access to information that should be public… and also to highlight who else has been requesting public information. To kick it off, Robertson and others at Naked Government have been making requests for public information, such as names, titles and salary information of various school districts in Southern California.
While many have complied, some have tried to push back. Robertson told me that organizations have even claimed “we don’t have a list of people who work for us and their salaries.” Others have argued they don’t have the information digitally, and thus don’t have to provide it. Some asked for outrageously high compensation to produce the data. In one case — involving Robertson’s home school district, the Del Mar Union School District, which his children attend — the school has argued that privacy rights prevented them from revealing the data.
This resulted in some back and forth between the school district and Naked Government employees, with the school district at first claiming that anyone who made less than $100,000 did not have to have their salaries disclosed. The district’s lawyers were relying on a lawsuit where someone had requested the salaries of any Oakland employees making more than $100,000, which the court said should be revealed. The $100,000 number came from the request — it was never a condition set by the court. The court gave no indication that there was any different rule for those making less than $100,000. At another point, after promising to provide the information to Robertson, the district sent him a list of titles and salaries… but with the names blacked out. This went on for a few weeks, with Robertson threatening legal action before the district finally complied and handed over all the info.
It should be interesting to see where this project goes, as it’s always good to see more public accountability efforts out there on public information and records. Robertson, of course, is somewhat famous for ending up in court. I’m having trouble thinking of any of his startups where he didn’t end up in court one way or the other — though, he often used those legal fights to drum up more attention for what his companies were doing, which can be a decent strategy if (a) you’re in the legal right and (b) you can withstand the hellish process of being involved in a lawsuit. We’ll be watching this project closely and hoping that it adds to government transparency.