Animal shelters, jury duty, code compliance – you name it – we all need to contact the government now and then. You might expect that locating the right bureaucrat would be relatively easy. A phone call. Some mouse clicks. But our admittedly unscientific assessment delivered these decidedly mixed results: Seattle is holding up its end of the bargain, King County is trying, Olympia has its work cut out.
This appraisal stems from a look at what’s available through each level of government’s unified “go to” online directory, as well as other means of accessing customer service.
The state was in the digital vanguard when it pioneered an electronic version in 1994. But it has slipped since then. To save money, four years ago it quit printing its hefty “SCAN” (State Controlled Area Network) phone book, which was hit-and-miss for email addresses. Disappointingly, SCAN’s online version lacks email info for more than six out of 10 names.
It turns out state agencies are under no obligation to upload employee information. Essentially, each department makes up its own policy regarding what details to provide.
David Brummel is planning, performance and policy administrator with the Consolidated Technology Services, the agency that technologically supports the directory. He is “well aware of the (existing directory’s) limitations and challenges.”
He knows of no “statewide policy or procedure requiring them to put employee information into the directory.” As a result, a significant number have apparently opted out, though Brummel noted some departments maintain a separate set of contacts on their individual websites.
Not counting higher-education staffers, the state employs about 59,000 people. Yet the online directory totals roughly 36,000 names, among which about 14,000 (just shy of 39 percent) include emails.
“In open and transparent government, the more information you have about how to contact the providers of governmental services is a good thing,” Brummel acknowledged. “I don’t know why some of the entries in dial.wa.gov have email addresses and some don’t.”
Compared to the state, Seattle’s approach is downright progressive. Bill Schrier, the city’s former chief technology officer, recalled that years ago his office consulted with other department directors on whom should be listed in the city directory.
“We agreed, with Mayor Nickels’ blessing, to put everything up — email addresses, internal phone numbers, mail stops, addresses, the works,” recounted Schrier, who served as CTO for about a decade until he left the job last year. “I am virtually certain there is/was no policy created on this. We just made the decision since the info is all subject to public disclosure anyway, and we already had it in the internal database.
“The one exception — which still stands today, I think — is many police officers and firefighters.”
Search results for the state directory are spotty. Credit: dial.wa.gov
One factor that went into the decision to exempt first responders was the variability of their hours and working locations. Most patrol officers, for example, are in the field with no desk or phone, and firefighters’ shifts and stations also change frequently. Schrier noted there are plenty of online contacts for the police department.
Asked to comment about officer exclusions, Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle-based communications and media attorney, said government may choose to exempt such contact info from a directory, but would be obliged to release it if pressed under the state’s public disclosure law. Earl-Hubbard was part of a legal team that successfully challenged the King County Sheriff’s decision to withhold the information on officers’ full names and salary information that was being sought by operators of controversial websites critical of police.
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