Give people what they want

Published 9:07 pm Saturday, November 22, 2014

I went to the book store today. I like browsing, though sometimes I’m looking for something in particular. Like today. I’d heard there might be a book about a Vietnamese artist who painted complicated still lives of cats playing tennis next to the Panama Canal. I just had to have it.

A beautiful stack of bestsellers greeted me at the door, but I moved on to the information desk, because I didn’t know whether to look for my book in the section for artists, animals, sports or history.

The gentleman at the information desk was eager to show me the bestsellers. He was clearly proud of the way the store had taken initiative to make them easily available to anyone from anywhere in the store. I agreed. The displays were lovely.

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But when I asked him about my painter, the gentleman looked perplexed. Why didn’t I want a bestseller? Why didn’t I want the other books the staff had selected on other topics? They were excellent books, he assured me.

I reminded him I was looking for this book about the Vietnamese cat painter. And right then, another woman walked up saying she couldn’t find books on the symbolism of fire engines. A man walked up saying he needed help finding a book on 18th century recipes for plum pudding. And yet another said he wanted every book they could find about soap.

Finally accepting the fact that no one wanted to buy any of the selections the store had chosen for us, the beleaguered information desk clerk dutifully departed to search for our books. He didn’t have the plum pudding cookbook, but he found every other book. We all paid for our purchases, and left.

That is the difference between what some in government mean when they say “transparency,” and what we at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government mean when we say the same word.

Both meanings have to do with providing information to the public — and that’s good. But at VCOG we use the word to refer to access; access not just to the records and information that government has chosen for us, but access to the records and information that we have decided for ourselves is important to our own lives.

The proactive publication of information by government is an absolute must. In fact, the future of public records is in the increased consolidation of records and information into databases and data sets that are made freely and easily available to citizens and businesses alike. Every new piece of legislation that proposes the sharing of data about government’s performance is welcome news.

There is a tendency, however, to want to push out only that information that makes the government look its best. We would do well to remember the good deeds of our local and state governments, but our relationship with them can be somewhat like our relationship with a significant other: We love him, but we sure wish he was a better driver or didn’t sing off-key at church.

A relationship based on an ideal doesn’t usually work. We need to know things about our government, even if they aren’t flattering, so that we are not caught off guard.

Further, because government affects so many different parts of our lives, and because we are such different people, it is impossible for government to anticipate exactly what every citizen will want and need when it comes to public records. There must be flexibility and responsiveness when someone wants to go outside the proscribed recommended texts to delve into issues specific and personal to him or her.

The bestsellers are bestsellers because people value them. Government should never stop making popular records readily available. But popular public records should not be the only option.

In addition to these popular records, citizens expect to be able to ask for — and get — what they want. Like our beleaguered clerk did, government usually comes through, even if they can’t understand why anyone would care about old plum pudding recipes or soap.

Like the bookstore example, all our public records are in the marketplace of ideas.

Megan Rhyne is the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit alliance formed to promote expanded access to government records, meetings and other proceedings at the state and local level. Email her at