The Metadata Skirmish
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
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
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
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 Citys 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 email@example.com
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