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.

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.