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.


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.)


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.