March 29, 2011

Local Government Online Transparency: A Work In Progress

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As the news ecosystem continues to reformulate, community stakeholders have an even greater need for direct access to timely, high-news value government information. The convenience of Internet delivery, a growing profile for government Web sites and databases, and the early mainstreaming of the notion of online transparency all combine to raise expectations that more of the right stuff, well-formatted and easily found, will be available online.

There are a lot of layers to this and we won’t even try to cover it all in this post. Let’s focus today on some of the basic building blocks. A good place to start is close to home.

Assessments of local government transparency require a look at online meeting agendas of city council and school boards to see what’s in them, or not. Collectively, dozens of taxing bodies in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties are modeling voluntary transparency by ensuring that separate links to individual documents corresponding to the different board business items are embedded in each online meeting agenda.

The inclusion of distinct links to legislation, staff reports, contracts and consultant reports in local online meeting agendas encourages bloggers and online journalists to hone in on hot topics, and include original source materials to enrich coverage, such as a consultant’s report to the Woodinville City Council on the fiscal challenges of redeveloping and marketing a city-owned historic property, or Kenmore’s draft contract with a consultant to assess costs and benefits of replacing King County Sheriff’s Police with a local police force.

Unfortunately, other local bodies take the far clunkier approach of posting agenda document packets in one huge pdf file, often more than 100 pages long, making it unlikely anyone would take the time to examine or utilize key source material. Some small government bodies responsible for water and sewer systems or flood control don’t even have Web sites through which meeting notices and agendas can be displayed, much less ordinances and contracts.

One in Snohomish County, the French Slough Flood Control District, was recently called out in a state audit for dealing no-bid contracts to two companies, each partially owned by one of its three commissioners. The District confirms it has no plans for a Web site and currently no mechanism for preparing, mailing or e-mailing regular meeting agendas to interested parties. The state open meetings law only requires such bodies to make known the time and place of regular meetings, it doesn’t specify how.

In Seattle expectations are higher. Constituents can use city-provided online mapped databases to follow neighborhood data streams including crime, construction and land use permit applications, and city and community meetings. King County’s restaurant health inspections database is an invaluable tool, and scores more Seattle and King County datasets are online at special hubs waiting for software developers to render them useful. A real-time Metro bus arrival data app is already a smash hit. Meanwhile, fellows for the innovative public service project Code For America spent last month in Seattle and four other U.S. cities in a whirl of stakeholder meetings to gain insight on what new “civic apps” they should develop to help governments improve service delivery and control costs.

Promising stuff. But some nuts and bolts are missing. From 2011 forward, Seattle should put online all of its consultant contract performance evaluations – such as this one daylighted by the Seattle Times to accompany their story on the city’s troubled Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. Taxpayers could learn more about where their money is being wisely spent and where not. Seattle also needs to adopt an “Open 311” system so citizens can publicly report a range of location-specific repair needs for city infrastructure and the city can show progress and priorities in response. Infrastructure needs shouldn’t be sequestered in departmental silos, and citizen suggestions confined to closed communications with the bureaucracy. In this space we’ll follow up with periodic reports exemplifying best practices and remaining challenges in online government transparency at the local, regional, state and federal levels.

Matt Rosenberg is the founder and executive director of the non-profit Public Eye Northwest, and founder of the news and knowledge base project Public Data Ferret. InvestigateWest Executive Director Rita Hibbard serves as a board member of Public Eye Northwest.

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