The Public Owns The Data

Avatar of Dannielle Blumenthal
Dannielle Blumenthal

On Thursday night my daughter pointed to my face, under my right eye and said, “What’s that?”

“What do you mean?” I studied her vaguely worried expression.

“Those things,” she said. “Lines.”

“WRINKLES? I’m getting WRINKLES? Oh my G-d.” I went to the mirror but didn’t see anything.

Friday night my husband looked at me funny. “What’s that?” Again, that area under my right eye.

“What do you mean?” I studied his face just like I had hers. Except he seemed to be laughing a little.

“The lines,” he said. “You’re getting wrinkles.”

“OH NO.” I went to the mirror. I did not see anything. Or maybe I did? Blame it on the makeup, blame it on the weather, blame stress.

I’m not going to admit a thing.

Very kindly my daughter added, “You’ve staved them off long enough, Mom.”

Gee, THANKS!

Freaking out about wrinkles is not only about looks. Really it’s about your own mortality. At a certain point the Universe starts to show you your own death is coming, and in demonstrable ways. Like a leaf fallen from the tree, you too are going to crumble back into the Earth. You realize:

* You don’t own the environment.

* You don’t own your loved ones.

* You don’t even own your own body.

The personal is professional in that at work, we tend to think we own things:

* Our cubes.

* Our job titles.

* Our functions.

But the fact is we don’t own anything at all. It’s called “employment at will” for a reason.

If you work for the government like I do, there’s one other thing to remember:

We don’t own the data.

Everything we do belongs to the public.

If there are things they can’t see, it’s not because it belongs to us. But rather it’s that they have vested us with the power to hold on to it – like a bank – to protect the collective from disaster.

As a government communicator it’s important to me to hold this understanding in my mind at all times.

My job is to be a steward of the taxpayer’s assets. The citizens are my ultimate boss.

So the laws that are in place to protect the data, and citizens’ access to that data, are really a responsibility. To be taken very gravely.

In every organization information is power, and there is an ongoing conversational buzz about it.

* What is happening?

* Who should know about it?

* What will we say?

* And what is the right timing?

All of that is well and good.

But at the end of the day, we should not confuse those conversations – which are really about efficiency and appropriateness – with any fundamental shift in the ownership of data.

Everything the government says – every piece of data it collects, all the information it generates, and the research and insights that result from that – are in the end the property of the citizens.

It is therefore the government’s job – speaking as a whole – to make sure the public can get to the publicly accessible data it’s paid for. In a way that makes sense to them. In a way that shows its significance.

And where the public cannot access data, for reasons of national security, for example, that those boundary lines are drawn clearly and publicly, without fanfare and in plain English. The bank has restrictions on how deposits are withdrawn because you the customer need to be protected.

I’m not talking here about an action shift, but perhaps a reflection on attitude. Are we always cognizant of our role and whom we serve? Or do we spend too much time getting lost in the day-to-day issues of the moment – looking inward instead of outside-in?

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* Note: As always, all opinions are my own.

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