What Happens When a Public Record is Actually Public? (Opinion)

More signal, less noise as Paul W. Taylor's monthly column signal:noise changes frequency.

by / February 4, 2010

This column debuted eight years ago. I recall flipping to the back page of the January 2002 issue of Government Technology and savoring the moment. Ink on paper can be a heady thing. I wasn't thinking about the length of the run. I was worrying about what I'd do for the second column. This month's entry is the 97th consecutive column.

The column's name -- signal:noise -- set a high bar for these essays. It sought to differentiate the quality information from the irrelevant or incorrect information.

It's been a great romp through myriad developments at the intersection of government and technology -- both of which have had to count time in Internet years (the idea that three months on the Internet equals a full human year, but that could be as much noise as signal).

One quote has had a strong signal, and I've cited it more than once. I first heard it from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's Beth Givens in the late 1990s when I was deputy state CIO in Washington. She said, simply, "The Internet will show us what happens when the public record is actually public."

That formulation held up well as governments launched home pages and portals, freed documents from file cabinets to online repositories, and debated whether an online record was official and authoritative (or if it needed a disclaimer that referred users back to the paper record if they were going to rely on it for decision-making). Making the public record public went to the heart of developing policies and practices around privacy and security. And now, in an era of transparency and live government data feeds that power Web sites, mobile apps and augmented reality, we're beginning to see what else it means -- warts and all -- when the public record is actually public.

You've been an integral part of this project's longevity. Your responses to columns -- positive, negative and indifferent -- have been vital barometer of their relevance in other ways. It's humbling to know that the year-end prognostications about the five things that will still matter five years hence are used in strategic planning sessions in several jurisdictions. Longtime readers will recognize these as my annual ode to Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University on Saturday Night Live.

I'm still pleasantly surprised to be greeted on what's been a 42-state circuit by people who volunteer that they always read the column -- some even saying they start on the back page on purpose!

Some of you noted an appreciation for humor reflected here, including one anonymous reader who returned the favor by warning me against a habit of imbedding song lyrics in columns. "Stop quoting all that hippie music," the reader said, "you're giving me flashbacks."

To everything there is a season, man.

Speaking of which, we're in a season of change with the addition of Governing magazine to the publishing portfolio that began with Government Technology years ago. I've taken on a new role working with the editorial, research and conference staff in our expanded embrace of the "what" of government (public policy) and the "how" (technology). I hope you'll let me know your thoughts at pwtaylor@erepublic.com as we progress.

I invite you to add Governing to your reading habits -- you never know who might turn up in its pages. Also, this column will become biannual -- the Guido-inspired year-end predictions and a midyear assessment of the campaign for digital government.

Final words that are eight years overdue and heartfelt: Thank you.



Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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