Don Sutherland

Here’s a story about Don Sutherland.

Three years ago I hacked together a little project to create an RSS feed of applications under the Lands Protection Act. The Act is administered by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission and my hack scraped data from their website and reformatted in a form that made it easy to get automatically alerted to new applications.

As with many such projects of mine, there was a more than a small dose of “hey, you guys should be doing this kind of thing” moral suasion attached to this, an approach that usually fails abjectly to achieve its desired result.

Except that the person administering the IRAC website was Don Sutherland, and when I sent him a “hey, you guys should be doing this kind of thing” email his response was, two months later, to make the RSS feeds available directly from the source.

Now this may not seem particularly remarkable, but it was. Being a public servant is hard, and one of the things that makes it hard is the complicated dance required to serve the public, the public good, and ones political masters, each with their often competing impulses. A side effect of this complicated dance is that it’s rare the public servant who will accept feedback from outside institutional walls (especially cocky “moral suasion”-type feedback), see merit in it, and act.

This project was but one example of many over the last decade where Don manifested this openness. We were colleagues, of a sort, when I was working with Government on its own website, and we cooperated on projects several times under that umbrella. And, once I left that project, from time to time I would send him obscure questions about things like gas pricing data and he always responded with uncommon attention and detail.

Don Sutherland died tragically over the weekend, and in addition to the tremendous loss for his family and friends, we the people are worse off for his death, for we’ve lost one of those rare public servants who was able to dance that complicated dance expertly, and truly serve the public. He will be missed.


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