A Local Business Database and App – Good Intentions, but Off the Mark

March 4, 2012

Colorado Senator Morgan Carroll introduced legislation to create a business database.  The legislation would direct the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) to create the database.   Local businesses would voluntarily be able to register, provide information, and a pay a fee each year.  The bill also requires OEDIT to create a mobile app for accessing the data.

Supporting local businesses and encouraging economic development are admirable, necessary goals.  Sen. Carroll deserves support for pushing those efforts.  But, the methods to achieve those goals in this legislation have significant shortcomings.

First, the state already has this information.  The Department of Revenue, the Department of Labor and Employment, and the Secretary of State’s office, already collect most of this data and could publish it online. 

Second, the private sector is already doing this (e.g., Yelp and Google Places).

Third, charging businesses to register and provide duplicative information is unfair and unnecessary.

Fourth, and finally, if the agencies just made the data available via an API or even by download from their websites, the private sector could make use of the data with less effort and little cost to government.

A more effective approach would be to direct state agencies to make their data available. For example, check out Data.Oregon.Gov.  At no additional charge, reporting requirement, or effort to businesses, Oregon has made business information available to the public and to the private sector.  Oregon’s data platform makes all of the things Sen. Carroll is promoting possible without extra costs.

Colorado’s proposal will limit innovation by restricting the data to a state agency that does not have the expertise or resources to create and maintain apps and other economic tools.  David Eaves, an open government expert, recently wrote about the economic potential of open data and helped plainly describe the benefits of government releasing more data to the public.

There are experts who can do this sort of thing.  Government doesn’t have to.  Government just needs to provide the tools and resources for the private sector and individuals to do what they need to do.

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Cook County Develops Open Government

April 25, 2011

Open government efforts have been rapidly developing in cities, counties, state government agencies, and federal government agencies.  I hesitate to call the developing efforts prolific, but more and more efforts are popping up.  A recent article on Govloop, “How Many Open Government Projects Are There?”, helped illustrate the development of the open government movement across the country.

In January, I wrote about the development of the Model Local Open Government Directive.  The model was a product of CityCamp Colorado and a collaborative effort of CityCamp, Colorado Smart Communities, Code for America, the Sunlight Foundation, OpenPlans.  The model provided cities, counties, and other governments with a framework they could adapt to implement open government principles—transparency, participation, and collaboration.  Since that announcement, the open government movement has continued to grow.

The latest update comes in the form of the Open Cook County Plan from Cook County, Illinois.  The Open Cook County Plan, which is based at least in part on the Model Local Open Government Directive, “is aimed at making county government data and information publicly available so residents can more effectively understand, interact with and improve government.”   

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said, “I know that the historic lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of Cook County government in many residents’ eyes. Quite simply, a government that is transparent and accountable to its residents is a more effective government.”  Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey went on to say, “This initiative will allow for unprecedented interaction, allowing residents access and use of county data to better understand how county government is operating and to make recommendations on how to improve and use government and services.”

The Cook County government has clearly recognized the benefits to its citizens and itself that following open government principles will provide.  Citizen satisfaction and government efficiency are just a couple of the benefits of open government.  The opportunities for cost savings and public and private sector innovation are also abundant.

I applaud Cook County’s effort to become a leader in the open government movement, along with the federal government, San Francisco, Manor, TX, Portland, Vancouver, and many other cities, counties, and other governments.  I am also very proud to see the work of several professionals and fellow volunteers being recognized and adapted.    

With additional promotion coming at the Sunlight Foundation’s upcoming Transparency Camp and the Gov 2.0a Conference, I expect knowledge and support of the main open government principles—transparency, participation, and collaboration—and the Open Government Initiative to grow.


Giving Employees Incentives for Innovation

March 18, 2010

Calls for more government efficiency come not just from the public, but also from the public servants who make government’s day-to-day operations possible.  Some of the best ideas come from the people who intimately know the processes that could be improved.  However, implementing those ideas often requires jumping several, tall hurdles.

In an unfortunate case of irony, government budget cuts have precluded some efficiency improvement efforts because those efforts require a financial investment.  Saving money three or four years down the line seems less attractive when employees are facing salary cuts, furloughs, and layoffs.  And, in the case of some Web 2.0 tools whose ROI isn’t measured in dollars, investing in the technology is almost out of the question.

Now, more than ever, more people are in need of government services and agencies need to find ways to provide more service with fewer resources.  To make this happen, agencies can’t just work harder.  Agencies need to find innovative ways to deliver services at less cost.

The Colorado legislature is supporting this effort with a bill, HB10-1264, that provides financial incentives to state agency employees who recommend cost-saving improvements. 

The bill requires the state department of personnel to develop a form, called an “idea application”, for employees to suggest improvements.  The personnel department is also responsible for developing criteria for evaluating the applications.  However, the director of the agency where an employee who makes a suggestion works is responsible for evaluating an application.

Then, for each idea that is implemented, the employee who made the suggestion will receive 5% of the cost savings, up to $5,000, as an honorary award.  The agency will receive 25% of the savings and the rest will be used by the state.

Up to a $5,000 bonus is definitely a strong incentive to put forth new ideas.  But, why is this type of bill necessary?  Why do we need laws to encourage innovation?  Isn’t giving an incentive to suggest improvements like paying a child for getting good grades?  (Disclaimer:  I wasn’t paid for grades when I was a kid, and I don’t have any kids, so I’m not really sure if that works.) 

Shouldn’t directors, managers, supervisors, and other agency leaders already be encouraging employees to share ideas for innovation?  Shouldn’t the leaders already be listening?  Well, it’s not the first time common sense has needed to be legislated.  I don’t mean to suggest this is a bad bill.  I just find the need for such a bill to be disappointing.  But, if Colorado government employees need an incentive to innovate and managers need to be pushed to listen to ideas, and I’m not saying they do, this is a step in the right direction.

What are your thoughts about this type of incentive?  What barriers have you encountered with recommending improvements?  How have you overcome those obstacles?

As of the date of this post, the bill is waiting to be heard in an appropriations committee.  The fiscal note associated with the bill doesn’t specify an amount for projected savings, and, while the fiscal note mentions the possibility of costs for implementing the idea applications, the note assumes those costs will be nominal.


Designing Government for the People

March 4, 2010

I was talking to a co-worker about our office’s reconfiguration plans, which involve merging divisions and training employees to handle a wider variety of customer needs.  It’s a nice plan, and it is likely to benefit our customers by removing the layers they have to dig through to get to the services they need.

In the physical world the reconfiguration has involved combining two separate customer entrances that were on two different floors into a single entrance with employees from two divisions at the front counter.  One of the next steps is to create a single call center for the two divisions, instead of the existing structure that utilizes an auto-mated phone tree to direct customers to the appropriate division.  But, this post isn’t about the reconfiguration. 

The discussion triggered some other thoughts about providing efficient services.  Government watchdogs and government itself continually make calls for more efficient government- faster, more reliable service, at less cost.

A state government trend in this area has been the creation of Web-based portals that allow customers to access a variety of services from multiple state agencies through a single website.  Some of these portals are a mere collection of information and links to other agencies, such as Colorado’s www.colorado.gov.  Other portals are based on functional needs, such as registering a business through the Utah Division of Corporations’ OneStop Business Registration site, http://www.corporations.utah.gov/osbr_phase_2.html.  (Both of those examples are NIC websites, but they are substantially different.)

Portals and other virtual spaces offer customers an alternative to visiting multiple government agencies to accomplish their tasks.  But, the real key to efficiency is to make people efficient.

Efficiency isn’t just about consolidating locations, whether they are physical or virtual.  Efficiency is about rationalizing functions.

Please hold the backlash for just a moment.  I know this didn’t work so well with homeland security.  That’s what my co-worker mentioned as he laughed, maybe rightfully so, at my suggestion of consolidating state agencies.

Technology is making a lot of improvements in efficiency possible.  I do believe the Internet, social media, mobile devices, and other technological developments are making government better and are helping people get more from their government.  But, can technology make up for inefficient structures?  If a person has to visit at least three state agencies to form a business, get a license, and sign up to pay taxes, can a website make up for the twists and turns, the discrepancies in policies, the processing delays, and the inconsistency in customer service?

Technology can make up for a lot, but improving government is not just about making government more efficient; it’s about making people more efficient.

The question shouldn’t be how can government do it?  The question should be how would a person do it?  Processes should be designed around people’s practices and expectations.  Government agencies shouldn’t expect people to adapt to the government’s ideas.

Redesigning government around people will take a lot more than new websites.  Redesigning government will take changes to legal frameworks, a lot of vision, and a whole lot of cooperation.

I’m sure there are a lot of holes to this idea that I haven’t filled, but I’ll settle for starting with a little idealism.

(If you’re interested in some similar ideas, check out Nicholas Charney’s discussion on Govloop, Envisioning a fully web enabled government department/agency and the related comments.)