ECFS: The FCC’s Comedo-Tragedy of E-Government & Transparency

by on September 11, 2009 · 24 comments

Read Part II here

In February, Congress passed the Obama Administration’s “(Five Year) National Broadband Plan,” part of the so-called “Stimulus.” (As economist Russ Roberts put it, government “stimulus” is “like taking a bucket of water from the deep end of a pool and dumping it into the shallow end.”) The Plan transfers $7.2 billion from taxpayers to broadband providers in subsides to promote broadband build-out. More than 10,000 comments have been filed on the plan. Once you get past the constitutional nicety of whether Congress has the power to subsidize “internal improvements” like broadband (it doesn’t), you might wonder just how well your money will be spent by all these techno-supplicants for the latest craze in corporate welfare.

The good news is that these comments are available online. Hurray for transparency! The bad news is that… they’re available online—specifically on the FCC’s Electronic Comments Filing System (ECFS). Anyone who’s used the web more recently than 1998 will cringe the first time they try to use ECFS to find anything, as Jerry has noted. Apart from the cumbersome, highly unintuitive interface, the problem is that there’s no way to search the text of comments! You can only search pre-defined fields like like “law firm,” and if you don’t enter a value in precisely the right way, you get nada.

Bill Cline, the Chief of the Reference Information Center for the FCC’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau tries hard to put the best face on this farce of e-government, explaining:

A docket number is key to using ECFS, and this link takes you to the ECFS retrieval form with the docket number for the National Broadband Plan, 09-51, already filled in.  Just hit “Retrieve Document List” to get a list of all filings.  Yes, there are lots of them, and you need to click on each individual filing to read it.  But there are many ways you can focus your search, which include:

  • Entering the name of a specific individual whose comments you want to see in Field 4 (Filed on Behalf of)
  • Narrowing your search to people in your community by using the “City,” “State,” or “Zip Code” fields
  • Entering “FCC” in Field 5 – (Law Firm) – to see FCC filings.
  • Clicking on the box in field 15 (Eliminate Brief Text Comments) to narrow the search considerably by retrieving only longer comments
  • Finding comments for a specific public notice by using a date range on either side of the comment due dates

Keep in mind that this the Federal Communications Commission we’re talking about here.  Yet this antiquated system hasn’t been updated in nearly six years! You might think the problem was just funding: after all, someone would have to pay for a new database system, right?  Yes, but we don’t need a new system: All the FCC has to do is set its robots.txt file to stop blocking search crawlers, so that FCC comments would be included in Google search results, as Jerry has noted.

The real absurdity here is that we naively expect these same regulatory agencies—that can’t even make their own data available through free search engines or stream their own meetings properly—to keep pace with the rapid pace of innovation on the Internet. If only the comedic geniuses at Saturday Night Live had chosen to pick on bureaucrats instead of lawyers, we’d have “Unfrozen Caveman Regulator” instead of  “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” Maybe that would have made it clear to Americans how silly it is to give the least technologically competent among us control over technology, innovation and creativity—or, even better, that no one central authority is smart enough to manage it, even one led by a guy as seemingly Twitterific as Barack Obama.

Obama’s picked some good people to pull government into the Web 2.0 era, but they’ll always be fighting against the tide of institutional inertia inherent in bureaucracy. In short, we may well see a significant upgrade in e-government in the next few years, but it won’t change the basic fact that government just can’t keep pace with technological change. One need not be a libertarian to accept that this basic fact makes the Internet “different.” Thus can even a non-libertarian be a cyber-libertarian of the Internet Exceptionalist variety.

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