industrial organization for government communication

Concern about too much government control over technologically limited and costly communication channels has been enormously significant historically. With the Internet revolution, governments can own and control communication channels without significantly lessening the opportunities for non-governmental bodies to do so. Governments that broadly disseminate government-created content do not preclude others from broadly disseminating other content. Vertically integrated government communication now carries much less political risk for the over-all communications industry. This fundamental change, it seems to me, favors more vertical integration in government communication with the public.

A draft of a new scholarly article makes the opposite argument. It declares:

If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. … Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens….[1]

The idea essentially is to have more vertical disintegration in government communication. Government would focus on providing a large amount of detailed, machine-interpretable data that other organizations’ technologies would search, aggregate, re-organize, and re-use. The anticipated benefit is more rapid innovation in the provision of information services to citizens.

Some efforts to promote vertical integration clearly are silly. The Yale Journal of Law and Technology (YJOLT) will publish the draft article quoted above in Fall 2008. The draft is freely and publicly available from the websites of SSRN and YJOLT. Yet on the top of every page of the article appears the bolded imperative “Do NOT cite.” That literally implies that everyone can read the draft article but no one can discuss it. Many blogs have simply ignored the draft’s pagely imperative (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). One sheepishly declared: “it kindly asks us not to cite the draft, but – since it’s out there for everyone to read – I assume a little quoting in a blog post like this is in order.”

Wanting to respect the authors’ wishes, I emailed them to ask if they would mind if I were to discuss their paper, cite it as a draft, and link to it. One of the author’s responded graciously. He thanked me for my note, explained that YJOLT required the header, and welcomed me to discuss the draft and link to it. That’s a good response. Allowing persons to discuss what they read increases the value of the time they spend reading. Moreover, the value of publishing an article in YJOLT isn’t reduced by allowing discussion of the draft. Attempting to deny readers the freedom to cite a publicly available draft is an absurd product of an organizational silo-mentality. Fortunately, the specific issue is relatively easy to deal with in practice.[2]

The more general and important issue concerns supply incentives. With respect to government data, more important than the allocation of resources between government data infrastructure and government provision of data to individual end-users is the extent of investment in producing, cleaning, organizing, maintaining, and studying data. Government data collection typically is initiated to serve a narrow political purpose. Concern about specific statistics and the use of the data to produce specific reports drives investment in ensuring accurate reporting, finding and resolving data inconsistencies, and maintaining the data over time. A data collection effort that expands over time to serve diverse political interests within government has a better chance of enduring. To the extent that government data collection mainly serves non-governmental information intermediaries, governments will invest less in collecting data and ensuring high data quality.

Governments have significant advantages as suppliers of web content and services to end-users. Most adults know the names of the governments to which they are subject, have experience with those governments’ services, and are concerned to make those services better. Governments typically spend little on user acquisition (many even aggressively discourage immigration) and relatively little on advertising and promoting themselves and their services. For example, U.S. federal government expenditure amounts to about 20% of GDP, but U.S. government advertising spending probably amounts to less than 1% of total U.S. advertising spending. Governments have a highly differentiated position within the space of user trust, and governments generate distinctive information flows. Eliminating governments from the ecology of end-user web content and services would waste their special institutional advantages.[3]

Stimulating end-user demand for government information is likely to make more government data available through information intermediaries. In academia, scholars who generate and share large amounts of data typically get relatively little academic credit, prestige, and status. Not surprisingly, only a small number of heroic academics pursue this unpropitious path. Even initiatives to require scholars to share data and algorithms necessary to replicate their published results have not been widely successful. However, the small share of scholars whose results attract considerable attention naturally generate demand for the data that they used. Moreover, these scholars then have some interest in ensuring that the data they used are widely available. The same dynamic is likely to be operative for governments. But the information flow is likely to be larger, because governments have a greater responsibility to supply demands for data and are less capable of controlling access to it.

Useful government data will get out one way or another. More important is to ensure that governments have an incentive to generate it.

Notes:

[1] From abstract of Robinson, David, Yu, Harlan, Zeller, William P. and Felten, Edward W., “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” . Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 11, 2008 Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1138083

[2] I didn’t try to contact YJLOT and get permission from YJLOT to cite the paper. When I’m not wearing my bureaucratic hat, I’m more concerned to respect the desires of human persons than those of corporate persons. That’s particularly true when those desires seem to me silly or not in the public interest.

[3] As bright discussion of id. has highlighted, the distinctive characteristics of government also include distinctive forms of end-user political accountability.

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