[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

[whitespace]
Mr. Fix-It: County Assessor Larry Stone's office was so backward when he was first elected, employees didn't have voicemail. It took $3 million in state grant money to update technology and produce a much-used website.

Cybersloths

When it comes to technology, Silicon Valley governments are still in the primitive stages

By William Dean Hinton

WHEN LARRY STONE was given his first tour of the Santa Clara County assessor's office in 1995, Stone's inaugural year as the county assessor, he was dumbstruck as to why a number of employees were standing in line in front of a desk. Turns out the reason was even more baffling. Thirteen years after Time magazine named 1982 the "Year of the Computer," most assessor employees still had no PCs of their own. They were forced to wait while colleagues typed data into one of a handful of dummy terminals for a department of 250 employees.

The office had no Internet, no email, no voicemail and an antiquated mainframe. Outside calls were announced over a loudspeaker as if the office were a car dealership. Because of time constraints, title companies were provided with information on five parcels of property at a time, then had to hang up and call back to receive info on another five. "It was embarrassing," Stone says now.

A year later, Stone scheduled a modernization plan, obtained through state grant money, spending nearly $1 million for each of three floors of the county assessor's office, to lay the cable and infrastructure needed for a modern, high-tech office. Now multiple users can access information, share files between divisions, access data from remote locations and enjoy such frills as Excel spreadsheets and digital photography. "The efficiencies are just enormously hard to quantify," Stone says.

Last year, Stone unveiled another perk, a searchable database of Santa Clara County properties. More than 146,000 visitors have viewed more than 3.5 million pages since last March, ranking the assessor's office among the three busiest county websites this past year.

For all this work, did Stone receive the blessings of a grateful web-browsing populace? No, he says. "You don't hear from people if it's a good system. People only know when it is bad. Everything is on the Internet, so what is the big deal to us? The big deal is the expectation that it will be there."

As Stone's example shows, the dirty little secret of Silicon Valley governments is that they have been slow to embrace high-tech innovations, many produced by the 7,300 tech companies sitting in their backyards. Want to search for a criminal record in Santa Clara? Good luck. You'll have to sift through a number of microfiches, separated by date and case type (felony and misdemeanor) at the clerk of the court's office. In other jurisdictions, researchers have been able to conduct name searches over the Internet for more than three years.

Want to search the city of San Jose's website for neighborhood information? Good luck. In an age when Google has become an overused verb, San Jose's site has yet to find a reliable search engine. Want to find who contributed cash to Ron Gonzales' last campaign? You won't find that on the web. Nor will you find historical election information or a way to sign up for electronic newsletters. In fact, the best governmental website in the South Bay is not operated by a government at all. It's www.smartvoter.org, run by the League of Women's Voters--but even its election information dates only to 1998.

CityNet

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the salad days of the Internet a decade ago, naive individuals assumed the quickly evolving web would create a kind of wonderland where community and governance came together like never before. Academics and activists debated the merits such innovations as bulletin boards, chat rooms and online surveys would have on civic participation. In the jargon of the day, the convergence of technology and government was called cyberdemocracy, teledemocracy or E-government. Much of the discussion went beyond electronic voting, which is where most of the fascination has ended today.

Initial efforts were modest, but the movement quickly mushroomed. Santa Monica, one of the first cities to go online, set up a forum where activists could discuss things like homelessness. Honolulu held a town hall meeting allowing citizens to call in with questions and complaints and to vote over the telephone. Using the motto "Advancing Community Through Technology," CityNet offered a service to connect departments of Cupertino city government, schools, businesses and community groups, providing them with the ability to apply for permits and licenses as well as provide email, want ads and sales information.

In May 2000, a Shaping the Network symposium, hosted by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, was held in Seattle with the intent of creating a "public sphere" in cyberspace. A similar organization, the Congress of International Direct Democracy, held conferences in Prague in 1998 and Greece two years later, intent on moving beyond representative democracy. The congress wrote a preamble, which sums up the thinking of many netizens at the time. "We, the Continuing Congress of International Direct Democracy, believe that all citizens have the right to directly perform lawmaking and other governmental functions in any polity in which they live. Therefore, we seek to develop and promote any participatory processes which allow people to exercise their rights to make their own laws and/or manage their own governance."

Cyberadvocates were convinced the information superhighway would accomplish almost two contradictory things. On one hand, it would encourage more people to get involved, those presumably frustrated with the marginalizing aspects of politics.

"Many people wanted to see if the Internet would transform the nature of democracy," says Paul Ferber, a Rochester Institute of Technology political scientist who researches legislative websites. "They wanted to see if tons more people would get involved. There was supposed to be mass participation free of the traditional party structure. This new technology would transform civic participation, taking it to heights never known before."

On the other hand, a kind of anarchist mentality prevailed, which downplayed government at the expense of an online free-for-all, where every citizen had an equal say, via the Internet, into everything from civic planning to when the garbage is picked up.

"In the ideological zeitgeist of the times, we were almost better without governments," says Doug Schuler, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and former chairman of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Schuler, who was instrumental in founding the Seattle Community Network, which provides email, mail lists and forums for free in the Seattle area, has written a book called New Community Networks: Wired for Change. "People were breathing and smoking the new economy. The Internet was changing everything. Governments were boring, a little obsolete, bureaucratic, unresponsive. Those attitudes were one of the reasons governments weren't particularly creative at that time. I'll bet there are many people today who are a little embarrassed they held those views. I do know a couple of people, and they say, 'I don't know what I was thinking.'"

Such wild-eyed predictions are amusing today, not unlike previous failed efforts to transform governance through technology. "Of course, those were the same kind of claims made when television was new," Ferber says. "City council meetings have been televised for a number of years. How many of us tune in and watch? We have busy lives and things to do."

There are other reasons the dreams of the early Internet weren't realized. The issue of censorship was a concern. Who was supposed to moderate civic forums in which voters describe the mayor's flaws in vulgar terms? Even sidestepping the issue somewhat by authorizing library personnel to moderate newsgroups, for example, would not completely eliminate claims of an omniscient Big Brother spying on individuals. "The whole thing is fraught with issues," Schuler admits.

Perhaps more than anything, cyber-democracy was doomed by a more aggressive foe: capitalism. Once corporations found a way to turn the Internet into another marketplace, visions of utopia gave way to economic concerns. Says Schuler, "For a brief moment, electronic democracy was the buzzword. You can clock it to the day when E-commerce took over. A cynic might look at it like the Internet was sold to us as a public good, but once it became profitable, the 'public good' was dropped."

Farce and Facade

From 1994 to 1997, governments, like most corporations, were concerned with finding a presence on the Internet, essentially becoming an online brochure of where to find city departments. From 1998 until 2002, they began to unleash many of the functions we now take for granted: applying for permits, paying parking tickets, filing taxes, renewing licenses, providing streaming video of council meetings and so on.

Some observers believe that in the coming years, web-based government services will be so popular people will forget where City Hall is. "By the year 2015, the Internet will transform the way we interact, view and carry out governmental functions," says Steve Nesenblatt, federal sales and customer relations manager of RightNow, software that helps governments respond to constituents' frequently asked questions.

Though RightNow is based in Montana, Nesenblatt is from Sunnyvale. He says most of California's governments, not just those in Silicon Valley, were technologically overtaken by governments in other states--in part because public officials here experienced the hype associated with infogadgets before the rest of the country. "People in Silicon Valley were hardened and jaded by some of the 'now' technology of the past," Nesenblatt says. "They viewed the next hottest, greatest thing with some skepticism."

That might explain why cities like Nashville, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Denver and Louisville have emerged as the leaders of E-government, based on a Brown University study of the 70 largest metropolitan areas. The rankings were based on 20 criteria, including whether sites had audio and video, foreign language access, restricted areas, E-pay, contact information, options for email updates and user fees. San Jose finished 44th in the rankings after coming in 13th last year. City officials dispute the findings, saying the Brown survey mentioned the San Jose Chamber of Commerce in a comments section, which is not a government website.

But one look at the top sites shows the difference between San Jose and cities with top-level websites. Denver translates its site into 11 languages, including Greek, two forms of Chinese and Dutch. Charlotte has a reliable search engine, mapping software and an area profile. Boston lets you pay parking tickets and report public works problems. Louisville allows residents to request services like snow removal. Nashville offers a video of the city, links to the Top 10 most-visited forms and webpages, a citizen's guide to the budget and a photo gallery. Each of the sites has a more impressive look and feel than San Jose's and, according to the Brown survey, a better privacy policy.

There's more at work here than pride of place and competing with other cities for the sake of being No. 1. Providing services is only one of the responsibilities of government. Enabling citizens to make smart choices is a more important function, something governments seem reluctant to do. Smart choices are mostly a function of having as much information as possible to make decisions.

"Almost every representative democracy at all levels of government is anything but transparent these days," says Ted Becker, an Auburn University political science professor and member of the Congress of International Direct Democracy. "Public hearings are a farce. Legislative debate is a facade. It is simply a buzzword to deceive the public that decisions are made in the open and with actual public input."

Yet before the public gives input, it has to know not only what the topic of debate is but also what the data are supporting the various arguments. That appears to be a problem in San Jose, specifically with the clerk's office providing information. The office is five weeks behind in publishing minutes to council meetings on the web. It has no plans to put campaign finance reports on the Internet. Nor is there any reliable election information, even on issues that impact only San Jose. (Interim Clerk Deanna Santana said part of the problem has been lack of personnel caused by layoffs in the clerk's office.)

The recent flap over Measure D might be the best example. The city asked voters to permit San Jose to change its construction policy so that it could move away from competitive bidding on projects costing more than $5 million. The measure was supposed to save money on construction projects, reduce delays and increase accountability, according to Mayor Gonzales. But you would never know that by the "impartial analysis" provided on the county's Registrar of Voters website before the election. The analysis, signed by City Attorney Richard Doyle, was a one-page memo defining in neutral terms what "design build" and "design-bid-build" mean and telling voters in basic terms what voting yes and no would mean.

There was no fiscal analysis, no comparative cost savings of projects already completed, no study by an independent consultant, no competing analysis.

A day after the election, March 3, the Mercury News wrote a scathing editorial calling Measure D "shadowy legislation" and saying voters had been "hoodwinked" into voting for it. As the editorial indicated, much of the financial push behind the measure came from contractors like Turner and Devcon.

Measure D was not a failure of the Internet, per se, because the failure to use technology is ultimately not a mechanical problem but a human one. It's a failure of government to be forthright so that decisions can be fully debated in a public forum, whether electronically or face to face. "If information is power," political consultant Jude Barry says, somewhat axiomatically, "then the more people who have it, the more power will be brought to the table."

Wallpaper

Unfortunately for valley voters, San Jose is not the only humdrum civic website in the area. Two years ago, Governing Magazine gave Santa Clara County's information technology a D+, saying incompatible email systems, a weak website, a manual procurement process and a decentralized structure made sharing information difficult.

Most city websites aren't much better. Of the dozen websites Metro checked out, only Santa Clara and Fremont stand out--Fremont because its site provides election information dating to 1956 and Santa Clara because it offers campaign finance disclosure since 2002.

Santa Clara County Superior Court somehow managed to win an award for its website from the National Center for State Courts last week even though it isn't equipped to conduct criminal or traffic searches. Perhaps the award wasn't so much a reflection of the court's technological ability as it was an indication how far behind the rest of the country is.

At the other end of the spectrum are guys like Joe Trippi, the former Howard Dean campaign manager, who spoke at San Jose State on April 21. Trippi has been at the forefront of what he calls a revolution, using the Internet to raise campaign cash, arrange meet-ups and make suggestions to candidates. More than 600,000 supporters signed up for the campaign on the Dean website, blogging one another in a way reminiscent of what netizens hoped the web would be years ago.

"It's the most powerful tool placed in the hands of the average American," Trippi said. Whether the revolution will infiltrate the government is a different story. Trippi wasn't holding out much hope. Most agencies, he said, used their sites as nothing more than "wallpaper."


Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]


From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate