Several years ago, we set out to do a story on speeding tickets in Maine.
How many tickets are issued? What’s the average age of drivers? Where are they stopped the most? What are the driving? Which officers give the most tickets? Which the fewest?
So, we turned to state government for answers. After all, the state requires police officers to gather a variety of information on each traffic infraction.
Certainly, we assumed, if it’s required to be collected, somebody in state government must collate it and analyze it, looking for useful trends or patterns in the data.
Well, like they say, never assume.
Traffic ticket information, we found, was simply stuffed into a box and shoved into a closet at the agency issuing the ticket. There was no overarching state process for collecting and analysing date.
Ditto for information on public school security plans. Ditto again for information on electronic consumer data breech reports, which we found were gathered by five different state agencies and analyzed by none.
It’s a problem we have found over and over in trying to report on issues affecting the state.
While retailers like Google and Amazon are analyzing our every move on the Web, fairly obvious information of public importance and interest is ignored by the state after it goes to the trouble of collecting it.
A blatant example of poor record-keeping became apparent in a story Monday by Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.
Schalit tried to reconstruct the critical decisions and discussions that led up to and defined the state’s expedited wind-zone process.
The two final meetings of the Governor’s wind power task force were key to that process.
During those meetings, regulators discussed and agreed upon the maps designating where wind developers could use the speeded-up process to allow wind power projects.
Unfortunately, there were no minutes or summaries kept of those meetings.
Minutes were kept of other meetings, just not those two, which turned out to be key to the process.
“Everyone was working straight out on getting the report done and no one had time to get the summaries done,” said the secretary for the task force’s chairman.
The task force was in a rush to get its report done before the legislative session ended.
“There was a lot of ‘Here, here, here and here’ and ‘No, no, and no,’ ” according to task force member Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield.
A Maine Audubon Society member said the process involved a lot of, “I want this in, I want this out.”
So, two years later, Maine is left with a map and only hazy recollections of how it came to be.
Not very reassuring.
Would it have been so hard to video tape these discussions? Turn on a tape recorder if everyone was too busy to take notes?
The Legislature should establish a data-management study committee to examine all of the state’s information management capabilities and processes.
While proper data-management may seem like an expense on the surface, information gives policy makers the ability to make smarter public policy decisions.
That would likely result in more efficient, effective state government – saving money in the long run.
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