(This post originally appeared on the States for a Transparent and Accountable Recovery blog).
We now have official responses from all three governors that Good Jobs First identified last week as having dramatically downgraded their states’ Recovery Act websites.
As we documented in our initial blog post on the subject, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s press secretary, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, questioned whether federal stimulus information is part of “the public discussion in Kansas” and said the Brownback administration is “not really promoting” the Recovery Act because it is trying to “get Kansas to live within its means.” In media reports in Ohio and Florida over the last few days, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida Gov. Rick Scott have also defended their respective decisions to deny taxpayers a fully-informed debate about the Recovery Act:
- In an email to Columbus Business First, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols claimed “Ohio lost 150,000 jobs under the so-called ‘stimulus’ program,” and added: “Literally, thousands of Ohio communities and schools put off much-needed reforms because one-time stimulus funds gave them a false sense of prosperity. Trying to paper over that kind of failure with a fancy website isn’t a priority.”
- As reported by The Sarasota Herald Tribune, Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said, “We decided we wouldn’t do anything to promote the stimulus program” because “[t]he governor clearly doesn’t believe in it.” He also said the move was motivated by a desire to “not put a ton of energy or spend tax dollars on content that few people read.”
Burgess returned to the “price tag” argument several times during a Twitter exchange with Collins Center Director of Online Strategies Dan Bevarly. Burgess said the Scott administration had found that the ARRA website had low traffic and asked Bevarly, “how much are citizens willing to pay for the engagement of so few?” Bevarly responded, in part, by noting that governments promote citizen participation when they share data and that in the case of Florida the cost argument rings hollow because “data on projects, spending & jobs was already online & removed.”
In a blog post on the topic, Bevarly added: “Making assumptions on behalf of what public information to make available to citizens based on the perceived public’s interest or lack thereof goes against principles of democracy. It becomes controversial once the information removed has already been published.” Collins Center Vice President Leda Perez also addressed Burgess’s comments in a column posted on the Collins Center website. Among Perez’s key points was that “We cannot treat public information as a commodity to be placed in the market only if people are willing to pay for it,” and that “[a] government committed to [transparency and government openness] might actually invest resources in order to create this demand for information.”
Burgess ultimately abandoned the cost argument in favor of a different defense: that the Florida ARRA website under former Gov. Charlie Crist wasn’t an example of “open government” at all, but rather “hand-picked data prepackaged and designed to sell [the] stimulus program.”
In doing so, Burgess is wrongly blurring detailed information about specific stimulus programs with political spin. It’s true that the old version of the website included some positive comments by Crist about the Recovery Act that the new Scott administration would of course remove, but the website’s data and project information is a different matter entirely. Reasonable people may disagree about the merits of a project or program, but it’s impossible to have an informed debate when information is withdrawn. As Perez noted, “Open and transparent government means that ALL public information is put on the table, regardless of political views or positions on the subject.”