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Government transparency meets technology limitations

Today I went online to file my annual “Statement of Interest” with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, but found myself colliding with a dysfunctional software interface. The Statement of Interest is supposed to provide some transparency in Tennessee government. All elected officials and candidates for elected office are required to disclose their financial interests and those of spouses and minor children, including sources of income, investments, and loans.

There’s a website where officials can file their disclosures and where anybody can see the reports that have been filed. In the past, my biggest challenge in filing was remembering my user ID and password. This year, I was able to dredge them up and log in, only to find that there is no visible mechanism for me to “File a Statement” (the help page says I should click on a button with that label, but I can’t see any such button). I can see my reports from past years, and apparently I could amend my report for last year, but I can’t file a new report for 2012, which state law requires me to do before January 31. Technology, including the Internet, smart phones, and social media, is a marvelous tool for improving government transparency and enhancing interaction between citizens and government, but it can be easily defeated by apps that don’t work properly. I see that a few other area officials have managed to file 2012 disclosures, and I’ve sent an email to Nashville to describe my problem, so I’m hopeful that my problems will be resolved well before the filing deadline.

Looking at the instructions for filing (which are a lot more detailed and informative than they were when I had to file a disclosure, several years ago) and looking at other officials’ reports, I’m led to think that it was far easier to pass a law mandate disclosure than it has been to implement it. Regarding income and investments, the original statute (about the only guidance we had the first year I filled this in) is fairly vague:

8-50-502.¬†¬†Disclosure statements — Contents.

Disclosure shall be made of:

(1) The major source or sources of private income of more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), including, but not limited to, offices, directorships, and salaried employments of the person making disclosure, the spouse, or minor children residing with such person, but no dollar amounts need be stated. This subdivision (1) shall not be construed to require the disclosure of any client list or customer list;

(2) Any investment which the person making disclosure, that person’s spouse, or minor children residing with that person has in any corporation or other business organization in excess of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or five percent (5%) of the total capital; however, it shall not be necessary to state specific dollar amounts or percentages of such investments;

In contrast, the current guidance on the website is far more specific — and includes some items not obviously included in the statute. For example, the guidance now defines “private income” as a long list of items, including¬† bank interest, stock dividends, honoraria, research grants, royalties, and “retirement income” (pensions and annuities) — none of which are obviously indicated by the language of the statute. Skimming through the disclosures filed by other officeholders in our local area, I concluded that it has been confusing for people to figure out what to report — for example, a couple of people who everyone knows to be receiving pensions did not mention their pensions on their forms, very likely because “retirement income” wasn’t on the list the first time they filed the form.

I guess that “transparency” works only as well as the guidance — and, in 2012, the software.

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