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The Metadata Skirmish

By Joe Lynn

November 27, 2006

I'm an old bureaucrat. I was the office manager at the Ethics Commission for over five years and watched first hand how frustrating document disclosure requests can be on bureaucrats. I remember having a major project in production, only to be asked to put it on hold in order to respond to a Sunshine request.

Even though I knew responding to Sunshine requests were part of my duties under the Ordinance, having to set aside my "real" work was frustrating. Many bureaucrats add to this the fear that the disclosure of documents may lead some to question their competency making mischief for them. So it's natural that bureaucrats will be hostile to the Ordinance. To cap things off, we don't educate our civil service about the advantages that come with transparent government business practices. Unable to see the benefits, the drawbacks of transparency are magnified.

The most recent eruption of this hostility comes in the metadata wars on calendar this week at the Rules Committee.

Metadata is information stored in a computer file that allows a certain amount of sleuthing to be done concerning the provenance of a document - who's worked on it, what changes were made by whom, the date created, etc. The City Attorney and just about everyone concedes that this information is valuable and should be disclosed under good government guidelines.

But the city attorneys use software that allows their privileged advice to be embedded in the document. They could use other ways of communicating with their clients such as we did in the old days using memos. Rather than making this benign change back to memos, the City Attorney is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to scour requested electronic files of comments that had no business being there.

The Rules Committee needs to understand that this is just one of the friction points between the bureaucrats and the ideal of transparency.

The bureaucrats claim to be overwhelmed by multiple requests of the same document. Yet oftentimes the second request is a follow-up on the first request to which the department never responded. We need to separate the bureaucrats from the job of producing documents. We need to fund a study to determine the best business practices for efficient production to the public. I believe this will include hiring a library scientist to report on creating document structures that will facilitate production.

As Doug Comstock, Chair of the SOTF, notes, even were we to repeal the Sunshine Ordinance, the State Brown Ace would still burden our City with this problem

We also need to educate our civil servants on the merits of transparency. Public oversight can strengthen the political power of a bureaucrat in pursuing his/her vision of a better City. The public responds well to transparent bureaucrats, rewarding them with trust. That was my personal experience on staff at Ethics. In addition, transparency can root out the incompetent, providing better support for those left behind.

Although the Charter gives the Ethics Commission supervision over educating the civil service on Sunshine, no mayor would fund Ethics for this and a number of other Charter responsibilities, so Ethics handed the job over to the City Attorney who not only are bureaucrats themselves but also represent the bureaucrats.

City attorneys also see themselves as the protector of the City's secrets. Given the antipathy to disclosure, they are hardly where you'd look first for educators. We need to cry foul, and ask the Mayor to confirm the wisdom of the Charter's assignment of the educator function to Ethics. Properly educating our bureaucrats may achieve a cease-fire between the bureaucracy and transparency pending the completion of any study by the SOTF.

The Rules Committee needs a pro-active position on the metadata battle. Focusing solely on its issues will lead to a missed opportunity to tackle the problem head on. We need to put in place the best business practices for achieving transparency in government. And we need to educate folks on why transparency in government is our goal.

Joe Lynn was the campaign finance officer and office manager of the San Francisco Ethics Commission from 1998 to 2003. From 2003 to 2006, he served as one of the five Ethics Commissioners. The San Francisco Examiner called him “the backbone of the Ethics Commission.” While on staff, he was named SF Government Employee of the Year by the SF Weekly in 2003. Mayor Willie Brown gave him two awards for his mentorship work He also received two commendations from the Board of Supervisors, one initiated by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom and the other by then-Board President Matt Gonzalez. The Northern California Society of Professional Journalists presented him the James Madison Freedom of Information Award in 2003. He managed the City’s electronic campaign finance program (named best in the country by the Center for Governmental Studies) and the conflict of interest program (named best in the state by the Montclarion). He maintains an active interest in good government laws. Email Joe at joelynn114@hotmail.com


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