Web Informant #375, 25 June 2004: Spread some sunshine
If anyone was in doubt about the essential nature of the Web in exposing operations of our government for public scrutiny, announcements from two different sources this past week confirmed it.
First was the announcement that soon all clinical drug trial results would be posted by GlaxoSmithKline, a leading drug maker. The issue in the past is that much of the failed trials aren't available to the public. The Food and Drug Administration and the national Institutes of Health have enhanced their own site as well, which is located at http://www.clinicaltrials.gov.
Second was the announcement that staff commentary about various corporate public filings by the Securities and Exchange Commission will be released on the SEC's Web site later this summer. Having these comments available to the public (previously, you needed to file a Freedom of Information Act request) will make it easier for investors too understand the weaknesses of these filings, and what issues the regulators have flagged. The SEC has long been in the forefront of providing public access to its documents, although it took some enterprising individuals such as Carl Malamud (if memory serves me correctly) to push them into the Internet age. The staff comments are just another data stream added to the already huge EDGAR database of financial disclosure statements that are required of all US public companies.
I thought about these announcements in light of my second job. As many of you know, I have for the past year served as an elected official, a trustee for our local public school board. I still have another two years of my term left, and the position has been an interesting one, if not rewarding and sometimes frustrating.
One of the issues that I have gained a new perspective on is what is called the sunshine laws, the ability for the public to find out what is going on prior to, during, and after our meetings take place. One of my surprises during my tenure was how much we debate what we should and can say in public, versus what we take up in executive session (when the public is not invited and no meeting notes are taken). It isn't as simple as it seems on the outside. There are legitimate reasons for having a closed debate, such as discussions regarding specific employees that the public shouldn't hear. Certainly, I have seen abuses of the executive session privilege, and I hope while I am on the board that doesn't happen.
If I were to give our board a grade for how we deal with the public, I would give it a B-. We do a lot to inform the public about what is going on: we post our meeting agendas on the school Web site, we make video tapes of the actual public sessions, we invite the public to comment at several times during the course of the meetings. But it isn't enough, and we could do better. Sometimes, we have to hold emergency meetings to approve expenditures relating to our ongoing building construction: these meetings aren't really publicized enough. We have worked with a group of student interns and parent volunteers to publish meeting notes to an email list server (something that I started prior to joining the board), but the number of subscribers isn't very large. The agendas of meetings can change at the last minute, as items get added and subtracted -- sometimes we find out about these changes minutes before meeting as a board. Oh well.
You'll notice how much electronic communications plays a role in letting the public know about our doings. Sometimes we rely on the electronics too much: we all use email to work through items that we need clarification on prior to meetings, and I worry that too much email chatter could be antithetical to the very public nature of our positions.
But I am glad that the SEC and NIH are doing their part to help spread a little sunshine into the workings of our government, and making it easier, rather than harder, for the public to find out this information. The burden is on all of us now to be better citizens and use this data to stay informed.
A personal note
I mentioned my second job. But I should also mention changes to my first job, too. For the past two plus years I have had the pleasure of working as technology editor for VARBusiness magazine. It has been a terrific ride and I will miss my colleagues there. But I am not moving far -- about 100 feet away working in a new posting for CMP as Online Editor for the Electronics Group. This is my third division that I have worked for at CMP (that must be some sort of internal record), and I will be responsible for supervising over a dozen different Web properties, as well as bringing new ones out into the world in the coming months. It is an exciting opportunity and while I will miss my associates in the IT computing space, it gives me a chance to come back to doing more Web-related work and work with some very smart and capable people. Of course, these missives will still continue on a regular (almost weekly) basis.
Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.
David Strom, email@example.com, +1 (516) 562-7151
Port Washington NY 11050
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