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The First Government Ethics App Is Here!
Thursday, April 25th, 2013
It's here at last: the first government ethics app (at least that I know of). According to a Capitol Alert post on the Sacramento Bee website yesterday, California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has a free smartphone app called Gift Tracker (first for Android, and soon for Apple) to let officials (state only, it appears) record in real time gifts received from restricted sources.
FPPC Enforcement Division Chief Gary Winuk is quoted as saying, "If you're at an event, if you're at a meeting, if you're giving a speech, if you're in a reception, you can just log in what the gift is." Then you export the log into a spreadsheet to attach to your annual disclosure statement (no, it doesn't appear to be a spreadsheet searchable by the public).
The app also allows officials to contact gift sources via text message, e-mail, or telephone, to let them know what they plan to report. Thus, an official can contact a reception host to let it know what she ate and drank at the reception. This way the official and the reception host are on the same page, even if no one will see the page for quite some time.
The app even helps you keep track of your aggregate gifts from a particular source, so you won't go over the $440 annual limit. The question is, can it tell you the fair market value of a sushi sampler, a glass of the best champagne, or the drafting of a bill?
What's next for technology in the field of government ethics? My pet idea is to have GPS tracking devices on lobbyists that tie into a mapping app, so that the public can see where they are, if not what they're doing there. Mix in high-level officials' calendars, and shake.
And how about real-time online disclosure to complement real-time logging in not only of gifts to oneself, but also of gifts to members of one's immediate family (from restricted sources only, of course), of gifts to pet charities (ditto), and of changes in one's annual disclosure statement, such as sales and purchases of real estate, and new clients who are restricted sources?
Now that we've brought 21st-century technology to bear on solving government ethics problems, it's time to bring 21st-century ideas to bear on them, too. For example, $440 is a big number. Disclosure of $400 gifts won't lead the public to trust officials more. It will make them trust officials less. Drop the number down to a more reasonable $50 or $100 aggregate, and there's no reason to waste time and resources disclosing the gifts. If they're big enough to disclose, gifts should not be accepted. That's a 21st-century best practice.
If there is a perception that officials might lose elections due to accepting too many gifts, the gift disclosures will go down. But there are a lot of ways to get around direct gifts to officials. Cutting the number and amount of gifts disclosed might increase trust, but only till the public finds out what is going on out of view. Then there'll be a big scandal. And Gift Tracker will be tossed into the dustbin of history.
Director of Research, City Ethics