Tuesday, January 29, 2013

From HB477 to an Open Data Standard for Utah

During the 2011 GRAMA work group, created in response to public outcry over HB477 and proposed changes to Utah's GRAMA law, I learned three things:

  • Utah has an amazing FOI law in GRAMA, defining public data.
  • An aggressive online infrastructure is already in place, but not being fully utilized in the availability of public data as defined by GRAMA.
  • Despite the image HB477 created, most of our lawmakers have high respect for transparency, being held accountable, and public access to information.

After we had made our recommendations as a work group -- almost all of which were enacted in Sen. Bramble's SB177 in 2012 -- I continued my conversations with state agencies, cities, counties, lawmakers, and transparency advocates here in Utah.  I had long conversations with the Sunlight Foundation (who, surprisingly, never stopped answering my constant questions) and open data leaders in other states regarding the implementation of public data policy.  The questions I had:

  • Are we getting the most out of our FOI laws?  
  • Is there waste, inconsistency, or even unnecessary cost for both the state and the public regarding the release of public data?
  • Could improvements be made easily?
  • Do the necessary tools exist already?

The answers were always: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

The next step became obvious.  To borrow the words of the sponsor of the bill resulting from these many conversations, Sen. Deidre Henderson in a KNRS interview last Friday: In Utah "the wheel has already been invented, we just need to streamline the process."

In December, all of this talk became a reality when Sen. Henderson agreed to head the effort up.  A small brainstorming group came together quickly, including Sen. Henderson, former lawmaker (and troublemaker) Holly Richardson, myself, Laurenellen McCann by phone from the Sunlight Foundation, and two people who know more about IT and data processes than anyone I know, Jesse Harris, and Phil Windley.

A skeleton bill was drafted, and our group expanded to include representatives from state archives, records, the Chief Information Officer's office, and additional members of the original GRAMA work group.  I've been told Sen. Todd Weiler wants in, but he doesn't know the secret knock, so...  Kidding!  Sen. Henderson has made it known she wants the process behind possibly changing the process of how data gets to the public to be open, and has even asked for your feedback via her post at The Senate Site.

Personally, I'm hoping for a robust discussion and passage, followed by what will surely be a continued refining of the data policy, streamlined by this bill.

So why am I writing this?  Two reasons.  I want to start a conversation about the importance of an open data standard in ensuring we get the most -- both in efficiency and effectiveness -- out of an already impressive environment surrounding public data in Utah.  More on that coming soon.  I also wanted to highlight this entire process.  From HB477 two years ago, to the work group, to the openness and sincerity and excitement of Senate leadership, staff, and of course Sen. Henderson herself in making this come together has been amazing.

On KVNU's For the People I get calls all the time from Utahns who feel their government doesn't listen.  "They don't care what we think."  "They don't listen to the little guy."  "They're out of touch."  Maybe this is a fair criticism, sometimes.  But in Utah, it's also true and important to recognize that anyone -- even an unapologetic lefty activist/blogger/heckler, like me -- can still get the ear of lawmakers and be a part of the process armed with nothing more than their email address, phone numbers, and an idea.

That is very cool.

I'll write more about the usefulness of an open data standard in the coming days, but I wanted to tell this story first.  I think it's easy to take for granted, or even get caught up in our (admittedly fun, equally important) partisan differences or the very "western" innate (and somewhat healthy) mistrust of government.  But it's nice to have a reminder that here in Utah anyone willing to jump in, through lawmakers eager to engage, can be a part of the process.

Thanks to Sen. Niederhauser and Sen. Henderson for engaging.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Before Obamacare, Utah Lawmakers Singing a Very Different Tune

Ran across an interview by KUED as part of their Healthcare: Facing the Barriers documentary.  Contrast today's staunch opposition to Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion with Sen. John Valentine, 2007:

By making it more affordable, you have a way to be able to get insurance.  Let’s use an analogy of a car.  Not everyone can afford an Expedition--a large SUV.  But most people can afford a smaller car.  If they can't afford a smaller car then perhaps they have to take public transit.  Now some of us will go in and out of the various different systems.  For example, I'll take my large SUV up to 106th South and get on tracks to go down to a Jazz game or go down to the Symphony or to go to Temple Square because it's more efficient to take that, it's faster oftentimes and I don't have to find a place to park.  So you use various different aspects of the system based upon what is going to work for you on that particular day.  Well healthcare can do the same thing.  You can have a healthcare program that has a basic system and if you want to afford add-ons, you can buy the add-ons, but everyone should be able to afford a basic system--that's the view that Utah would like to put forward.

The view 2007 Utah would like to put forward sounds a lot like a public option, and exactly like Romneycare in MA, a program Obamacare borrows heavily from especially regarding expanding access to reduce costs associated with a high number of uninsured.  An idea 2007 Valentine also endorses:

I would start with a basic policy that could be affordable for all Utahans.  It would be a basic policy.  It would not have a lot of the bells and whistles that we keep mandating to insurance carriers.  On that basic policy, the premium on it would be means tested, in other words, depending upon your income would be dependent on what you'd have to pay for that policy.  That policy would be available to everybody above the poverty line.  People at the poverty line would be covered by Medicaid--that's a federal program that the state participates in.  I wouldn't change that part of it.  But it's for those uninsured Utahans above the poverty line, but not able to obtain insurance through their own employer.  That basic coverage would be just that--it would be very basic.  It would not have a lot of the things on it that people expect with insurance when they have expectation of full indemnity, in other words it covers everything.  But that basic policy would provide a basic coverage for everyone to be able to afford.

Sen. Valentine also endorses a collaborative effort between states and the federal government to expand access and reduce premium costs.  While true to his conservative nature opposing mandates and "Canada-care," 2007 Valentine draws a stark contrast with the position of Gov. Herbert and many legislators expressed today.  "The states can't go it alone," 2007 Valentine says, without hesitation.

Is the takeaway here that, uninsured be damned, a good idea is only a good idea if "our guy" is in the White House?  If expanding Medicaid was a good idea in 2007, it's only a better idea in 2013 as costs have continued to more than triple in Utah.