Archive for the ‘Open Government’ category

7 Basic Principles For Open Government

April 10, 2012

The steps necessary to making government more transparent are often not that expensive or cumbersome. What is needed more than anything is a change of mindset among government officials.

Several civic organizations including Citizens UnionCommon Cause New YorkLeague of Women Voters of New York State, and the New York Public Interest Research Group , and Reinvent Albany, have released a report that highlights how to make the operation of government in New York State more open and transparent.

The full report which you can read here also puts forth seven basic principles for using technology to open up government, that can serve as a useful guide for other municipalities. Simple steps like putting documents online in a searchable format can go a long way in promoting open government.

1. Government information is public information. Information subject to public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law is public information, except for privacy, security and contractual concerns.

2. Public digital information should be put online in a searchable, usable, common format, and kept updated.

3. State policymakers should use Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to guide what information goes online first. The universe of digital records is huge. New York State government gets twenty thousand or more FOIL requests a year. The most FOILed (non-personal) records should be posted online in usable formats.

4. The State should seek ways to use technology to keep the public informed and engaged. Information Technology is abundant and cheap. Most transparency measures involve a change in mindset, not great expense.

5. Online digital information should be searchable, downloadable, and usable by the public. Government documents should be online in common, usable formats like TXT and CSV. Government should not hide information in plain sight — scanned paper copies of documents, saved as image files in PDF format are unsearchable from the web or within the document. They are effectively inaccessible to the public.

6. Government should welcome and share public feedback
Government websites should give the public many opportunities to comment on government decisions before they are made. Those comments and responses should be shared.

7. The state should use online maps to show the public what government is doing.
A picture is worth a thousand words — a map is worth ten thousand. A government serious about transparency will post information online as interactive maps as the federal government did with, including spending, tax breaks, capital projects, member items, economic development projects, etc.

Empowering Residents Through Participatory Budgeting

April 3, 2012

Kudos to four New York City Councilmembers who are letting residents of their districts have a say in how some discretionary funds are being spent. Joe Moore an Alderman from Chicago has also utilized Participatory Budgeting, which I discussed in a previous blog post.

An article in the New York Times highlights how Participatory Budgeting works. There is even a non-profit organization devoted to assisting communities with implementing Participatory Budgeting.

People are so cynical and distrusting about how government operates, so I support any process that encourages and engages the public in government decisions. One of the quotes highlighted in the Times article says it all: “So far, I love feeling like we have some say in what is done,” said Maggie Tobin, a participant from Kensington, Brooklyn, in Council District 39.

The ability to dole out government money is power that all elected officials relish and are reluctant to share. When I served as Chief of Staff to the Buffalo Common Council the big question that every councilmember wanted to know when the Mayor’s budget was released was how much discretionary funding were they going to have access to. Very little discussion or debate took place regarding budget priorities or policies proposed by the Mayor. The only fighting or negotiating that took place primarily involved how much money Councilmembers could control.

Turning the power of determining funding priorities over to citizens is a great way to encourage and increase public participation in government. Very few elected officials have been willing to empower community residents to have a direct say regarding budget decisions. I applaud the four New York City Councilmembers and Alderman Moore in Chicago for empowering community residents and hope that this idea spreads to other local governments.

What do you think about the concept of Participatory Budgeting?

Local Governments Need To Embrace The Passion Of Amateurs!

March 15, 2012

One of my favorite quotes is: ”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

The first edition of Britannica Encyclopedias appeared in Scotland in 1768. In 11 years a group of Internet volunteers has ended the 244 year history of Britannica printed encyclopedias.

Britannica has 100 full-time paid editors and the cost of its printed edition was $1,395. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition, which comes in 32 volumes weighing 129 pounds have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought.

Wikipedia was created 11 years ago and is not organized in any traditional way as the content contained on its web site is all prepared by dedicated passionate volunteers, where it is available for free. Wikipedia doesn’t have a single paid employee responsible for content (writing, editing or any of the sort.).  Wikipedia is more than 10X as big as the New York Times, which has 1,200 employees responsible for writing and editing.

Through dedicated volunteers Wikipedia has worldwide produced more than 17 million articles compared to Britannica’s approximate 100,000, Wikipedia has 365 million readers, and is the 7th most popular website in the world. Total visitors to Britannica’s websites last year numbered 450million. Daily traffic to Wikipedia is around 100million hits, which equates to more than 36 BILLION hits a year.

Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail states:

“In the endless debate about the relative merits of amateurs vs. professionals in a world where the two have equal access to the tools of production, I think people miss a key point:

“Amateurs self-select for the job. Professionals are selected. For most jobs, volunteers beat draftees. I’ll take a passionate amateur over a bored professional any day.”

No one imagined that several thousand volunteers interested in writing encyclopedia articles could contribute the amount of free quality work they did for Wikipedia. People are passionate about their communities and their local governments. Wikipedia makes it easy for people to contribute their time and ideas, local governments need to do the same.

Local governments need to embrace the passion of amateurs!

Enforcing Freedom of Information Laws

March 12, 2012

I believe strongly in the public’s right to obtain information through freedom of information laws. As General Counsel to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, I had the responsibility of responding to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Responding to such requests can be incredibly time consuming, a more pro-active approach is to make as much information available on-line through the power of technology and the Internet.

We are fortunate in New York State to have the New York State Committee on Open Government, headed up by Robert Freeman. Mr. Freeman is extremely accessible by e-mail and telephone for advisory opinions regarding FOIL matters. I have contacted Mr. Freeman in my capacity with the Buffalo Housing Authority and as a concerned citizen for his opinion on FOIL and open meeting issues.

Jim Heaney a former Buffalo News reporter has a post up about the difficulty he and other reporters have had in obtaining information requested through FOIL. The Albany-Times Union has had similar issues.

Having the legal right to obtain information through FOIL is a great tool but if this right is being thwarted through stone walling or just simply refusing to respond, then perhaps citizens need additional measures.

The state of Connecticut, has a nine-member panel that hears nearly 800 complaints a year from the public over alleged abuses by public officials of its Freedom of Information laws. The sides present their arguments to the panel, and then a ruling is made on whether the information under dispute should be made public.

As pointed out in a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article, Pennsylvania started a commission in 2009 that has binding authority to impose the law. The 10-person office, which has a budget of about $1.1 million, has handled about 4,000 cases since it started; all but 200 were resolved without having to end up in the courts.

What is amazing to me as pointed out by the numbers referenced above is how many people want information and have been denied such information requiring the involvement of a panel to decide the matter.

While I generally do not support creating more bureaucracy, I like the idea of creating an Open Government Committee at the local government level. While local governments seem to have many committees and boards (my hometown of Tonawanda, NY, has 28 of them), none that I have seen have an Open Government Committee. Such a committee could encourage government officials to release information in a pro-active manner to reduce the time involved in responding to FOIL requests. An Open Government Committee could also hear disagreements about FOIL requests, similar to what has been done in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, without the expenditure of a large sum of money.

What do you think about forming an Open Government Committee in your community? If you are an elected official or a citizen activist, why not raise such an idea at your next local government meeting?

New York City Leads The Way On Providing Government Data

March 4, 2012

The New York City Council recently passed Open Data legislation that will  require 50 plus agencies to publish their quantitive data sets through an online portal in a machine-readable format, enabling public and private sector access to better manipulate and interpret the city’s information.  Data will be presented by category and by City agency.

As stated in the City Council press release:

“Today, the Council will vote on the Open Data Bill that will give New York City the strongest open data policy in the country. Government data available in a transparent format will allow the Council, advocates, research institutions and the public to analyze and interpret agency data, discover trends, reach conclusions and suggest new policies. For example, with freer access to complete inspection data, the Council can better determine if laws are being enforced consistently citywide and identify areas where procedures need to be improved. Trends will be more easily recognizable, paving the way for additional legislation, further outreach, improved education and targeted enforcement if appropriate. The bill will also generate economic opportunities for entrepreneurs to create applications and programs by using City data in innovative ways.”

For interesting examples of how government data can be utilized check out

The legislation will put on-line information that is available to the public through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, without requiring people to submit such a request. My understanding is that obtaining public information from many local governments is not easy when people file FOIL requests. Hopefully more local governments will move in the direction of taking a proactive approach by putting public information on-line.

Does Your Local Government Have “An Open Government Team”?

February 14, 2012

The City of Reno Nevada (population 220,000) has created an Open Government Team, which on their web site is described below as:

Open Government Team

We are currently forming an internal Open Government Team led by our Web Services Manager. Team members will come from all departments and all levels, with the intention of supporting our external transparency efforts.

Here are some of the goals of this team:

  • Identify and implement opportunities to share data and information
  • Develop policies and procedures related to transparency
  • Oversee use of web, social media, and print communications in transparency
  • Provide related content for internal blog
  • Support the City Clerk’s Office in open records planning and public records requests
  • Support Neighborhood Services in media relations
  • Advise web and intranet development teams

In addition to the Open Government Team Reno has an online checkbook where anyone can check what each department is spending and what vendors are receiving payment. Reno is even soliciting ideas on how to be more transparent by placing the following on their web site:

Help Us Improve

Listing our datasets is just a start. Please help us improve by letting us know what type of data you’d like to see and how we as a government can be more transparent. Please send your suggestions and ideas

It is amazing how many committees and boards local governments have for every topic imaginable, yet very few have devoted resources to something like an Open Government Team. A lot of elected officials talk about transparency but few take the step of pushing the bureaucracy to become more open and transparent. Bringing staff from all departments together to create an Open Government Team is a great idea. What do you think?

Government Checkbook 2.0

February 13, 2012

The office of the New York City Comptroller has a great web site that provides a comprehensive look, updated daily, at nearly every check issued by the city. The current Comptroller web site is being updated to provide detailed information about the contracts related to each individual payment, city vendors and the contracts they’re working on, and how payments made to date stack up against each agency’s budget. The site will also include information about incoming revenues, audits, budget reports and other analysis produced by the entities responsible for monitoring the city’s finances.

City finances will be provided as an open-source project allowing software developers to utilize the information in unique and creative ways, which will increase the transparency and public access to New York City’s finance information. Nick Judd of Personal Democracy Media has written an article which contains more details about the revamping of the New York City Comptroller’s web site.

The open-source nature of this means that public information can be sorted and tracked in as many creative ways as talented people can develop. It would be great to see  local elected officials champion similar projects. What do you think?

Does Running A Village/Town With Three People Make Sense?

January 30, 2012

In the Buffalo, New York area a public fed up with the cost of government has over the past several years voted to reduce the size of the Erie County Legislature from 17 members to 11, and the Buffalo City Council has gone from 13 members to 9. Kevin Gaughan a citizen activist has led the charge to reduce the number of elected officials serving at the town and village level.

As a result of  recent referendum votes several towns and villages have reduced the size of their governing boards from 5 members to 3. Going to 3 members due to the New York State Open Meetings Law poses some logistical challenges for elected officials. Under the Open Meetings Law, whenever a majority of elected officials meet to discuss public business it has to be in a public meeting that the public has been made aware of so that they can attend if interested. On a 3 member Board a majority is two, which means according to Robert Freeman Executive Director of the State Committee on Open Government:

“Even if the only subject to be considered could validly be discussed during an executive session, a board would nonetheless be required to give notice and convene its meeting open to the public,” Freeman said. “Now [under a three-member board] board members can’t talk to each other about town business. They can’t meet for a cup of coffee, they can’t even email one another.”

In the Town of West Seneca, which downsized from 5 members to 3, in order to communicate and adhere to the Open Meetings Law, West Seneca board members direct questions to the town attorney, who contacts board members to get their input, then he lets everyone know what the others are thinking.

According to Gaughan, “The disease that afflicts government is lack of transparency, closed door deals help erode confidence in government.” Hamburg Supervisor Steven J. Walters believes the ability to call up a councilman to get input is invaluable. Orchard Park Councilwoman Nan Ackerman, whose seat is being eliminated in the downsizing, believes the critical mass necessary for effective brainstorming will be lost. “It’s so much easier to come up with ideas when you’re talking together, if you think about it all by yourself, you’re like a rat on a treadmill. Nothing new is coming to you because you’re not hearing any new ideas.”

Kevin Gaughan who led the downsizing movement in Western New York believes the area will benefit from smaller boards. Decisions will move from the back room to the board room, where citizens can see how their government operates. “We actually strengthen enforcement of the Open Meetings Law”.

Gaughan additionally  notes that the Buffalo area has lost: 272,000 people since 1976, 30 percent of young people between 18 and 34, and the ability to fund the ever-increasing cost of government. “I’m hopeful that everyone is going to take this opportunity to rethink how we can govern ourselves more efficiently,” he said.

In addition to the limitations on communications among Board members, some are concerned that the power of running a town or village is being determined by the majority vote of two people.

Do you agree that elected officials being unable to discuss government business in private is a problem or should all discussions take place at a public meeting? Is two people constituting a majority vote for running a local government a concern for you?

Co-creating Public Services?

September 19, 2011

Private companies such as Procter & Gamble, Apple and  Amazon have achieved great success by tapping into the ideas and creativity of others to co-create products and services. The success of the iPhone, iTunes and iPad has been driven by the thousands of apps customers have created on the platform provided by Apple. The world is full of smart and creative people who are willing to contribute their talents to improving products and services. As such, businesses are thinking of their customers as not just purchasers of goods, but as co-creating partners.  Companies that embrace expertise that exists outside of their employees gain a tremendous innovation advantage.

Government officials can and should learn from the open innovation approach being utilized in the private sector. Open innovation can be utilized in government as well by engaging the public in co-creating public services.

Advantages of co-creation

According to Christian Bason, author of Leading Public Sector Innovation, Co-creating for a better society, Co-creating with people to find new public solutions offers the following advantages:

  • Gives bureaucracies an ‘outside-in’ perspective on current practices, opening public servants’ eyes to the experience of their users and promotes creativity.
  • Helps public servants to see how services could be made more valuable to the public, while benefiting from people’s own networks and resources.
  • Takes some of the risk out of the innovation process by designing and testing ideas that are based on genuine need.

As Bason states:

Co-creation is the process of creating new solutions with people, not for them. For instance, co-creation could mean redesigning healthcare services and how patients subjectively experience them, by involving patients themselves through observation studies, interviews, workshops, and interactive ‘prototyping’ and testing of new service solutions and approaches.

Co-creation generates more and better ideas that will work in practice, and it creates the ownership needed for all key stakeholders to see them through. Embracing co-creation to identify more powerful government responses to ‘wicked’ social problems is to recognise that ultimately, citizens are experts in their own lives. It is only by connecting with their experiences, motivations and engaging their resources that decision-makers can create the future public sector we need. At this critical time, what is the alternative?

In order for co-creating between citizens and government officials to work, the following is necessary:

  • Involving citizens in policy making
  • Supporting citizen decision making with better information
  • Focusing on long-term outcomes
  • Having a strategy for encouraging local innovation

What do you think can and should officials engage citizens by co-creating government programs and services? Are government officials prepared to share power with citizens?

The Public Has A Right To Know

April 6, 2011

It seems as though every week I read about a government entity violating open meeting laws or freedom of information requirements. Many school boards, town boards or city councils operate under the incorrect assumption that all personnel matters or all legal matters can only be discussed in an executive session. I once attended a public meeting of a commission appointed by a County Legislature to discuss reducing the number of legislators. Although I was the only member of the public in attendance a motion was made to go into executive session so that the members could candidly discuss their thoughts, which could lead to litigation.  When I explained that as a member of the public I had a right to hear their deliberations and that potential litigation was not a valid reason for a private meeting I was asked to leave.

Robert Freeman as Executive Director of the New York State Committee On Open Government, does a great job in issuing advisory opinions and educating the public about their right to know what government officials are doing. Every year the New York State Committee On Open Government issues a report on their activities and recommendations for improving public access to government information. The most recent report to the New York State Legislature makes the following recommendations:

  • Require that Certain Records be Posted On-line – government can be a better partner with the public through proactive disclosure, by making records and data available online as a matter of practice and policy, avoiding the need for Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests.
  • Records Discussed at Open Meetings Should Generally be Available Prior to or at Meetings – often a public body will review and discuss a particular record at an open meeting, but the record is not available or distributed to people attending the meeting.
  • Ensure that the Names, Titles, Salaries and Public Office Addresses of Public Employees are Clearly Accessible

  • When Tentative Collective Bargaining Agreements Have Been Reached and Their Terms Distributed to Union Members for Approval, They Should be Available to the Public – Even though labor agreements may involve millions of dollars during the term of the agreement, rarely does the public have an opportunity to gain access to the agreement or, therefore, analyze its contents and offer constructive commentary.

  • Limit the Exemption Regarding Political Caucuses in Order to Guarantee that Public Business is Discussed in Public – The New York Open Meetings Law contains an exemption concerning political committees, conferences and caucuses. As such the Democratic and Republican caucuses are allowed to meet in private to discuss political and public business. The entire City Council in Buffalo consists of Democrats. Under the law the City Council could meet in private to discuss matters. To their credit the Buffalo City Council does not hold such private meetings.

What do you think about these recommendations?