August 31, 2005 By Merrill Douglas
"Since the charter was announced, we have been asking for this to be created almost every year," said Tanya Domi, the CFB's press secretary, noting that the CFB also held several hearings on the issue. "This is the first administration that has demonstrated any interest in complying with the charter directive."
It's still not clear whether Vendor Search will actually give new teeth to the city's campaign finance laws. Soon after the Mayor's Office announced Vendor Search, the CFB applauded the effort, but said Vendor Search doesn't provide the data it needs to regulate campaign contributions.
"The new VENDEX system -- until it is 'cleaned up' -- will yield both materially over-inclusive and materially under-inclusive results for those looking at overlaps between the information VENDEX contains and the information in the board's database of campaign contributors," the CFB said in a published statement. "As a result, use of this system at this stage would create a high risk of error and potential embarrassment."
The CFB also indicated that Vendor Search isn't compatible with its own searchable database, although the administration has promised to link the two.
"We're really happy it's been created, but the city's database is not ready to meet the board's requirements of accurate, timely and usable data necessary to establish verifiable disclosure for the 2005 elections," Domi said. For example, the VENDEX database includes some vendors that have merely applied to do business with the city but have never won a contract, she said.
"Also, the database hasn't necessarily been updated. We don't know how accurate it is," she said, and the same data points aren't collected consistently for every record.
The CFB is eager to see the search tool include companies that apply for land use permits, as well as other businesses and individuals that might seek to influence politicians, Domi said.
"We need to come to some kind of understanding of what 'doing business' means," she said. "For example, to get a 'hack license' medallion for a taxicab, it's $300,000. Is that 'doing business' with the city?"
Despite the lingering questions, because it opens a window to government activity, Vendor Search is one of many tools that can help combat corruption in city politics, Knafo maintains, noting that citizens can look at the information and ask intelligent questions.
"I don't think one piece of technology in and of itself would be responsible for reducing corruption. That said, transparency in government does help honesty in government," said John Horrigan, director of research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit, nonadvocacy group that investigates the Internet's impact on society. "The question is, if these databases exist, will people use them?'
Though Pew hasn't looked into whether citizens use the Internet to uncover government corruption, it has asked survey respondents if they use the Internet to get information about government. The research shows that many do, and that Internet users are more likely to contact government than non-Internet users.
"Given these online tools to get more information about government, people put them to use," Horrigan said.
It's not clear yet whether people will use such tools to function as citizen oversight boards.
"Maybe, maybe not," Horrigan said. "But people will go to these Web sites the New York City government has put up. So in terms of a strategy for improving the transparency of government, this is definitely a smart move."
You may use or reference this story with attribution and a link to