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.


There Has to be a Better Way

February 6, 2011

While sitting at almost a dead stop on I-70 for 40 minutes on the way to Vail this morning I began fantasizing about faster ways to get to the mountains.

Several ideas have come to mind in the past:
High-speed rail
An extra lane
A zipper lane (that one may actually happen)
A high-speed chairlift from Red Rocks to Eagle
A tunnel

Most of which are not financially feasible.

A personal helicopter would be ideal, but, again, not financially feasible.

But, that led me to the solution.

The military could fly Black Hawk helicopter shuttle flights to the top of ski resorts.  Vail could contract with the military and include the shuttle as an extra season pass perk.

Less traffic
Faster travel
Military pilot training
Military fundraising
Being awesome

None come to mind

We skiers need a solution; put your thinking caps on.

(Disclaimer:  This is not a serious blog post. I’m just a bit jaded about traffic.)

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.

Creative Budgeting – Home Redistribution

January 26, 2010

The Colorado legislature introduced a series of tax credit reductions with the goal of saving the state money.  Eliminating the tax credits will save the state money, but the loss of tax credits will cause prices to increase, which means people will have to pay more, which means they will either spend or save less or both.

I commend the legislature for pursuing options, but we, as a state, still need to look for options that create revenue without hurting individuals.  Specifically, we need solutions for education funding.  K-12 education funding in Colorado is already near the lowest in the country according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Those schools are funded largely through property tax revenue, and the state doesn’t have enough of it. 

A possibility that could be looked into is for the state to claim foreclosed homes by eminent domain, rent or give those homes to state citizens, and create jobs through an agency responsible for overseeing the program, repairing, and maintaining the homes.

Redistributing foreclosed homes would:

  • Increase state revenue through rental income or property tax;
  • Create jobs in a state oversight agency;
  • Create more jobs through a state home repair and maintenance service; and
  • Discourage banks from foreclosing on homes.

Yes, of course, there are downsides.  The home redistribution program would be big government at its biggest, but that, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  And, the program would require some state constitution amendments.  Homeowners who are meeting their responsibility by making mortgage payments are sort of left out to dry.  I’m sorry, but this is for the greater public good.  Without help, those people won’t have schools to send their kids to; at least they won’t have very good schools. 

I’m only half joking.  It’s laughable until you think about it.

Realizing Democracy through Technology

September 16, 2009

Government is often thought of as having closed doors, being insensitive, inflexible, unbending, secretive, and controlling.  In short, the public doesn’t think highly of government.  And, it’s not just because the public has high expectations.  The public should have high expectations of the government of the greatest nation in the world. 

Yet, government is simply made up of people.  Our government administrators and our elected officials are our friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Sometimes, something transforms these people with good intentions within the halls of bureaucracy.  Maybe it’s the tradition of facing negative public opinion.  Maybe it’s the stress of trying to please everyone.  Maybe government really is made up of self-serving, power-hungry, deaf-to-the-public, bureaucrats.  I don’t think that’s the case. 

Not every person can attend public hearings, speeches, debates, and other government events.  Many government events are held between 8 AM and 5 PM, Monday through Friday, which immediately excludes many people with regular, full-time jobs.

Luckily, technology and some dedicated, honest, citizen-oriented administrators are charging towards opportunities for informing and collaborating with the public.

Online technology, notably social media, enhances and expands the opportunities people have to share their opinions and participate in government decision-making.

Colorado Senate President Brandon Shaffer, for example, is using an online survey to supplement his personal visits around Colorado to invite suggestions from people about how to improve life in the state.  He’s also reaching out to people via Twitter and Facebook.  His follower and fan counts aren’t extensive, but these online efforts have a lot of potential to complement in-person events.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office involved the public in an informal comment period regarding changes to administrative rules.  Subject-matter experts who participated in past collaborative efforts were directly invited, and the public-at-large was welcomed to participate in commenting on proposed rules as well as making direct changes to the proposed rules using a Google Group site.  Government agencies are required to conduct open public comment periods prior to holding hearings to pass administrative rules, but this informal effort brought the public into direct communication with employees in the Secretary of State’s Office and gave people the opportunity to write the rules that will affect their transactions with the office.

To support citizens’ sharing their opinions and experiences with health care, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter launched a website to help citizens send letters to the editors of newspapers.  The site allows people to enter a zip code and retrieve the contact information for nearby newspapers.  People can then write their message and send it directly to the editors.  There are even pre-written points that people can add to their own messages or use to help get their thoughts flowing.

The Colorado legislature has been broadcasting its sessions since January 2008 on the Colorado Channel and online streaming video.  Former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff helped pioneer this effort to share the actions of state lawmakers with people who can’t come down to the Capitol to watch.

Current Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll is successfully using Facebook to both share political updates and to foster personal relationships. 

These are just a few examples of Colorado public officials using social media to further connect with people.  Several federal government agencies are also conducting social media efforts to share data and more easily obtain citizen feedback.  The TSA blog is one of the most successful examples.

While there are many admirable citizen engagement efforts being undertaken, there are still some efforts that are coming up short.  For example, Gov. Ritter issued a press release seeking comments to rules regarding roadless lands, a controversial issue here in the West.  However, the press release did not provide any information about how to submit comments.  That makes for a seemingly empty request for citizen input.  To be fair, however, Gov. Ritter is making several other efforts to promote communication with citizens and transparency in state government, such as with the Transparency Online Project.

Government, however, encounters several obstacles to successfully undertaking collaborative efforts.  Resources for developing and monitoring communication tools are often limited and specifications in terms of service and other regulations sometimes prevent the use of free tools. 

“But,” as former EPA CIO Molly O’Neill said, “technology is the easy part – creating truly collaborative services is much harder and brings big changes. True government collaboration means being open and transparent with data, assumptions, debates, and decisions.”

On top of the physical constraints, people’s perspective of government sometimes prevents them from participating.  Through years of tightly-held decision-making, some citizens have become disillusioned and have come to anticipate a lack of recognition from government- along the lines of “your comments will be disregarded in the order they were received.”  People may be reluctant to participate because they think it’s a waste of their time.  Then, there’s the old-guard that’s standing behind the closed doors. 

Through consistent, sincere efforts government is overcoming these obstacles.  The public needs to see that their comments and suggestions are being seriously considered.  The doors of the old-guard can be broken down with the dedication of thoughtful employees.

Public officials and administrators and the public are responsible for using these opportunities to establish better policies and programs and to push our government to truly support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Government needs to provide the tools that are available and share information.  People need to share their voices and expertise.  And, government needs to listen.

Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed democracy will act responsibly.”  About 200 years later we may be realizing that vision.

Meeting Citizens’ Needs

July 2, 2009

I re-learned some very important things at tonight’s Denver Democrats House District 5 (HD5) meeting. Citizens want an open government- they don’t just want to know what decisions are made, but they also want to see the process in action. They need to know who the decision-makers are. And, they want access to those decision-makers. Public hearings can’t continue to be held only during working hours; that prevents working citizens from participating. Most importantly, citizens want elected officials who have solutions and have the ability to make those solutions happen.

I’m pleased that my experience in the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office is leading to the realization of all of those citizen needs. Through being responsive to constituents’ inquiries and complaints we have been able to develop web-based systems (some things are still under development) that provide constituents with efficient public record filing and searching tools. Records can be filed in minutes and retrieved in real-time.

Business registration and commercial lien recording are pretty small functions of state government, but they do serve important roles in commerce. Most importantly, those are the duties assigned to the Division I work in, so we administer those duties as efficiently as possible.

Our next endeavor is to bring our constituents into our processes, into the creation of our policies, and into state government. We’re doing what democracy is meant to be. We’ve provided extraordinary constituent support for many years, but many of these efforts to further involve citizens should have been undertaken much earlier. We’re not perfect, so we’re getting underway as quickly as possible. Also, new web tools (referred to as Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0) have greatly improved our ability to involve constituents.

As an example, earlier today, we launched an informal administrative rules review effort using a Google Group to obtain feedback on the proposed rules. Using the group allows constituents to view and edit the rules and share comments with other reviewers. Participation is available to constituents who are invited to join the group or who request to join the group. That limitation is in place so that we can obtain contact information for future efforts to collaborate with the public. It shouldn’t be, but this is a unique venture, at least in the Secretary of State’s Office, into giving citizens visible, hands-on opportunities to shape government policy.

This experience can be applied to nearly every government endeavor. During today’s HD5 meeting we talked about two substantial issues- improvements to and potential re-routing of I-70; and needle exchange services, specifically the Underground Syringe Exchange of Denver (USED). (I would have hesitated to bring up the illegally operated USED, but they already have a website and people need to know about that service, not that posting here will greatly spread the word until my readership expands beyond immediate family members.)

Government officials are responsible for both proposing solutions and for obtaining public feedback on those proposals. The public is responsible for utilizing those opportunities. Together, the collective wisdom and fortitude can achieve any needed objective.

Cell Phone Ban: Well-intentioned, But Misguided

April 23, 2009

When I read about Colorado’s proposed ban on talking on cell phones while driving, HB09-1094, I was firmly against it. Such a ban is one more step government is taking into controlling our personal choices. As is commonly mentioned, there are numerous other actions that can distract a driver that are not subject to a ban. But, cell-phones are singled out. Flipping through a book of 200 CDs while driving is probably just as distracting and dangerous (although, maybe I was the only one who did that) and shuffling an I-pod is just as bad.

That was all before I almost got hit by a car being driven by a young woman who was talking on her cell phone. I was crossing the park street coming in off of 13th and I saw the car barreling down. I figured she’d look up and stop, but she barely slowed down. When she noticed me, she removed her other hand from the steering wheel and gave me the courtesy wave. So, she was zooming into the park with no hands on the wheel.

After recovering from my momentary change of heart, I’ve realized the ban is not just misguided, but would also be insufficient, discriminatory, and a financial drain. The ban would only affect people under 18 years old and would still allow hands-free communication- speaker phones, mics, headsets, etc.

The problem with cell phones does not come from holding the phone. People frequently drive with one-hand on the wheel. The problem comes from talking to someone who is not present and the driver’s focus shifting from the car to the person on the other line of the phone. I’m not sure why, but talking on a phone seems to be more distracting than talking to another person in the car. We would never consider banning talking, right? I hope not, but banning cell phones brings us to the edge of that slippery slope.

The ban also disproportionately affects young adults. HB09-1094 would impose an outright ban on people under the age of 18 while people over 18 could use hands-free devices while driving. This is one more example of the discrimination against youth. If people over 18 stop getting into accidents while talking on their cell phones, then such a discrepancy may be reasonable.

At least the ban also prohibits sending text messages while driving.

Finally, the ban includes a $50 fine for infractions. Is that really worth the costs of enforcement? The overall goal is certainly public safety. But, will the ban really be enforced? The costs for the resources to enforce the ban are likely to exceed the revenue generated from $50 fines. But, the fiscal note for the bill does not make any reference to the costs of state patrol officers and local law enforcement, so my cost predictions are purely speculative.

As well-intentioned as the ban may be, the government is rarely successful at controlling personal behavior and really shouldn’t even be in that line of work.

The bill has passed the Colorado House and now moves to the Senate.