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Giving Out Information?
18 April, 2013
There is a great opportunity for the new government in terms of how they view information. The old way to view information was the more information I have that nobody else has, the more successful I am. The new way is that the more effective and precise the information I can get to people, the more successful I am. For Georgia, the change from the first to the second is taking too long.
Like all habitual liars, the communist governments
were horrible at handling information; they had no idea how to use it. The previous government on the other hand, tended to think about information in terms of public relations. They had a great number of press conferences and announcements, but there wasn't much real, useful information. Unsurprisingly, they didn't much like to answer questions. But just as importantly, they weren't good at telling people what was actually going on. I don't know if this came from a lack of confidence—that if the public really knew what was happening, that it would somehow be dangerous. The leadership would think up a plan, then those lower down would implement it in a rush. Then they would have a big announcement and we were all supposed to be happy about it. And often we were, but often we didn't really understand what they were doing. And often, after they cut the ribbon, the program didn't really work and we didn't hear about it anymore. This is why it is best to bring in members of the public who care from the start, so they understand it better.


The other type of information the previous government was bad at handling was how to tell people about what they were doing that directly affected people’s day-to-day lives. Here is an example: it seems like in the last few months, there have been more and more several-hour-long electricity cuts on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. Sometimes they are announced, sometimes not. When they are announced, we are not told when they will be exactly, just that there will be a cut that day. Usually they don't do this, but if you call they say, "there are repairs". If there were repairs, why don't they figure out how long they will take and make it so you can register on a website and when it happens, they can send an automatically generated email or text with all the information they have?


Another example: I live on a small street in Mtatsminda. The municipality is currently resurfacing it. No neighbors knew they would repair it and no neighbor I know wanted it repaired. Our real problem is not poor roads, it is that cars drive too quickly on the little road and endanger children’s lives. The police don't give out speeding tickets and the municipality has refused to put in speed bumps to slow down cars. Yet now they are putting a new surface on the street. If they had asked or told us some time before, we could have told them that. But there is not really a way for them to do this; they are not in the habit of letting people know what they will do. If you talk to the supervisors on site, their attitude is basically one of "Shut up and be happy we are doing this".


While fixing the road they destroyed a basketball hoop that was set up which the kids in the neighborhood used. When I asked who would fix it, they said it is not their problem. I said ok, who would know whom I should talk to about that? Nobody knew.

This is not like trying to understand particle physics or implement peace in the Middle East. People want to know about these small little things in their neighborhoods, but governments set themselves up to do things—design policy, write laws, implement their plans—and talk about how great it all is. They forget to tell people what is going on or what will happen. They should focus more on letting people know more, especially since now with digital information, it is so very easy. For example, why doesn't the city make it so people on specific streets can register their emails or mobile phone numbers in order to get information about what’s happening on their street? It would be so easy and cheap. And the government would have a convenient way to communicate with people. Every government office in Georgia seems to have somebody related to public relations but those people simply update Facebook pages with pictures of the minister and try to get journalists to come to press conferences. When an actual member of the public calls them, they have no idea what information they can give out, and have to ask their boss’s boss’s boss what they can and cannot say. The prevailing view is that people can get fired for giving out information but nobody ever gets fired for not giving out information. So the public stays frustrated.


It is time for public information to be handled better in Georgia. There is even an international effort for this to happen called the Open Government Partnership (www.opengovpartnership.org). For the government to open up more, this information must be made available by default, rather than hidden away by default. The government must listen to the public more carefully and understand what things they want to know and develop ways to tell them about it even to have a discussion about it. It is now very cheap and easy to use technology to do this, and would also have great political advantage. The officials who think about getting good at using technology to get people the information they want about the issues they care about in their own neighborhoods will end up being much more popular than the ones who simply spend lots of time with their faces on TV.

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