How tech can make government more honest

A pilot program is underway in Jersey City, NJ to track employees' use of city vehicles. As a New Jersey taxpayer I can only rejoice. Government ought to use tech more aggressively at all levels to fight waste and fraud.

GPS tracking of employees' use of the employer's vehicles has a vaguely overbearing, big brothery air to it. The employer is basically saying that they don't trust the employee. Shocking.

But sometimes this is necessary. In New Jersey, it may be more necessary than elsewhere.

I recall once, many years ago, attending a Philadelphia Phillies game on a Sunday and walking through the Veterans Stadium parking lot past a State of NJ vehicle that said on the side "Official business only". I wrote down the details and sent them in to someone in state government and heard nothing else about it.

It is for abuses like this that private companies have been using tracking systems for many years. It is not uncommon, for example, for traveling repair personnel — the cable guy, for example — who are out on the road all day to be allowed to take the official vehicle home at night. If everybody's reasonable about allowing distance to and from home then it's more efficient for everyone. Taking the company van to the shore for Labor Day is another matter. recently reported on a program in Jersey City, across the Hudson from lower Manhattan, to put a GPS tracking system in city vehicles. They quote Mayor Steven Fulop as saying “We can track where they go, how long the ignition has been on for or off for, what the stops are, how long they’d been at each stop, so it creates another measure of accountability.”

Just prior to the pilot program a city employee was arrested using his city vehicle to pick up a prostitute.  The tracking system wouldn't have uncovered that specific detail, but it might have presented a suspicious driving pattern.

New Jersey, especially in the larger cities, is notorious for corrupt government, but I've thought for a long time that most of the corruption, in terms of the dollar value lost to the taxpayer, is at the grunt level like this, and technology like GPS could help to cut a lot of it.

Here's another great example, not that you really need more: A friend's driveway was in bad shape. One day, a public works crew from a nearby city showed up at his house, in uniform with a city truck full of asphalt, and offered him a bargain rate to fix up his driveway. Certainly GPS would make this a lot harder to get away with.

It's important for employers, including governments, not to be jerks about this stuff. There's a difference between going a few miles out of the way to the supermarket on your way home and taking the company car fishing for the weekend. But if data integrity is maintained then at least we can agree on the facts and just argue about standards of behavior

As for the higher-level corruption, where officials steer contracts to friends or sell jobs on the public payroll, well, that's a tougher nut to crack. But sunshine is the best disinfectant for these problems, so the more government operational data is made public on the Internet in accessible forms (*not* PDFs of scanned documents with no character recognition), the better. People will find and analyze the data and point out problems. If we let it, tech will make government more efficient just as it has made private business more efficient.