Getting specific about local government transparency
The idea that we need more transparency in conversations about the future of the city of Richmond, Indiana, especially from government entities and other influential community building organizations, seems to be gaining traction. That's a good thing! I wrote just a few months ago during Sunshine Week about how important this is.
At the same time, I'm seeing the word "transparency" used in a lot of different ways, some of which skew the meaning in unhelpfully, possibly harmfully. I've also had a few people ask me for specific ideas of what more transparency might look like in this community.
So, while I've no illusion that any definition I suggest here will be broadly accepted, I think it's worth trying to clear away some of the fog about what kinds of transparency we (those whose futures are intertwined with that of the city) could expect and ask for from our leaders. I also think it's worth taking stock of how well Richmond leaders are doing at being transparent.
What It ISN'T
Let's start with a couple of things that transparency is not in this context:
- Transparency is not about government or community leaders being at the beck and call of anyone who posts some random question on a blog or Facebook page and waits for an answer. If I post here, "I wonder what the cost of taxpayer-funded project X was?" and someone in authority doesn't call me in 24 hours with an answer, I can't claim a lack of transparency. That's just me failing to ask the question directly of the right people.
- Transparency is not about government or community leaders just being available to answer the questions they're asked. Let's say the a city official did call me up with the budget for project X. Or that I left a voicemail for my City Council representative and he or she called me back. That's not transparency, that's just responsiveness, and it's a part of the job description for most people who are employed by taxpayers or who are responsible to the interests of a certain constituency. (Responsiveness is certainly a prerequisite for transparency.)
- Transparency is not about compelling the exposure of the private and potentially painful details of sensitive personnel conversations that any organization or government must sometimes conduct. There are rare exceptions to this, when the details of the conversation are material to a more substantial question or claim about quality of leadership, use of taxpayer resources, etc. but in general an organization must be able to keep performance-related conversations private unless the personnel involved grant permission for their disclosure.
In other words, "transparency" is not a synonym for "communication" or even "gossip." We know there are those who are capable of saying a lot without actually saying anything useful or meaningful, and so we must be careful not to mistake an exchange of words for being a transparent approach to leadership.
What It IS
So what is transparency, especially in the context of government leaders and community-building organizations?
Transparent behavior is when someone holding information or facilitating a process proactively works to make that details of the information or the inner workings of that process accessible, easily understood, and free from pretense.
What might that look like?
- When there's an decision up for consideration that might bring about noticeable change or that might be problematic for some population, transparency includes proactively seeking broad consultation and inviting substantial dialog that has the potential to impact the decision that is eventually made, even if it results in a public airing of conflicting viewpoints
- When there's information or data that's being used to define an issue or shape a decision, proactively making that information publicly available as early as possible, online in its most raw form, for anyone to examine, search, sort, cross-reference and comment on, even if they might be able to draw different conclusions than the prevailing opinion
- Transparent behavior entertains the idea that with more eyeballs looking at given problem space or set of information, there's a better chance of mutually beneficial plans or solutions emerging than if there are fewer people with access to the same.
Let's Get Specific
"No really," you say, "give us a really specific example!"
Here's a basic one that I talked about in my campaign for City Council last year:
Let's say I want to attend a City Council meeting and understand how an issue I care about works its way through the legislative process. I need to know who has the power to influence the outcomes, what structure of proceedings they will use, and at what points along the way I might be able to provide input or request action.
I can try to find the Council rules of order on the City website, but they're not there. I can try to sort through what Indiana state law says about how city councils can operate, but that's going to take a while, and may not give me all the pieces. I can call up my City Council representative and ask them to walk me through it, but do they really have time to do that for every resident of Richmond? And what if they disagree with my stance on the issue, are they really going to help me as much as they could? Finally, I realize I can call the City Clerk's office and have them fax me a document from 1986 that lays out the rules and procedures for conducting City Council meetings. (Here, I'm posting a PDF scan of that document for you in case you actually find yourself in this situation.)
That's a lot for an average everyday citizen to do just to understand how an ordinance they care about might get through City Council.
A transparent city government is one that makes the mechanics of its governing processes easily accessible and might even go to the trouble to explain what Section 30.07, Rule II, subsection (G) actually means in practice. A city government that isn't transparent doesn't bother, setting the bar incredibly high for community members who might want to observe or participate in their activities. In the worst cases where officials benefit from obscure processes, they actually rely on how inconvenient it might be to access this kind of information.
Need some more examples? Sure:
- Making the agendas and minutes of government meetings available online as soon as they're available
- Publishing city budget and expenditure information in electronic spreadsheet form for detailed analysis
- Allowing residents to subscribe to e-mail alerts about upcoming meetings of interest
- Having city officials fill out and then publish conflict of interest disclosure forms that list organizations they or immediate family members have a financial relationship with
This isn't a fanciful wish list. Many cities around the country, big and small, have made providing this kind of transparency a priority, and regularly dedicate staff time and financial resources to making it happen.
The Role of Online Tools
You've probably noticed that a lot of the above refers to publishing information online. Indeed, there are efforts underway globally to redefine "making information public" to equate with "publishing that information online." The web represents an incredible tool for government and organizational transparency, if only by removing the arguments that cost or inconvenience are a barrier to making information available. We must not ignore the parts of our population that don't have convenient, reliable Internet access, but that's not a reason to hold off on using these tools.
If you look at the Sunshine Review's checklist for what a transparent city website looks like, you'll see a lot of these kinds of requirements:
- Comprehensive budget information
- Meetings and agendas
- Details about elected officials, including party affiliation and conflict-of-interest statements
- Details of audits, contracts, and lobbying relationships
- Comprehensive information about accessing public records
and so on. Sadly, the City of Richmond's online presence leaves so much to be desired when it comes to facilitating transparency and accountability of government processes. Some key officials still don't have publicly available email addresses. Public officials have acknowledged these challenges and yet there doesn't seem to be much movement to address them. If Richmond truly wants to engage its community members in transparent, open government that invites broad participation and dialog, it needs to address these missed opportunities for using digital tools.
(Full disclosure: my company Summersault has a general financial interest in helping people build and use online tools. Beyond that, in 2011 Summersault was invited to submit a proposal for redeveloping the City of Richmond's website. Following some strategic planning work we did for the City about their online needs, we determined that our services and approach were not a good fit for the project's requirements, and declined to submit a proposal.)
The Public Record
Lastly, I want to comment on the role of the public record in relationship to accountability and transparency. A disconcerting trend has emerged in Richmond among some public officials where they basically refuse to have substantial interactions about their decisions or decision-making process in a way that is on the public record. They're doing this by inviting those interactions to happen in environments where either (A) they have complete control and editorial censorship power, (B) there is no publicly accessible permanent record of the exchange, or both. This includes:
- Conducting off-the-record conversations with constituents on private Facebook pages
- Conducting off-the-record conversations on audio or video programs where no archival recordings are made available
- Inviting constituents to have their questions answered in off-the-record private phone calls or personal email exchanges that aren't subject to Freedom of Information Act requests
Let me be clear: I have nothing against the use of any and all of the techniques to facilitate conversation and disseminate information. I applaud city leaders who are making use of social media and other tools to increase the amount of information exchange between them and those who they represent.
The important thing is that these exchanges are happening in addition to what is put on the public record, not instead of it.
Statements made on private Facebook pages, in personal emails or in personal phone calls can be considered confidential, and is not a part of the public record, so by their nature limit the way they can be made available equally to all interested parties, verified, and referred back to over time. I know a number of people who choose not to use Facebook or who don't listen to talk radio, but still expect to have access to information from their public officials.
In a worst case scenario, if a public official doesn't like where a conversation is going on Facebook or changes their mind about something they've said, they can just remove the posts there or block access by those they don't want to engage. No matter how good anyone's intentions are, this possibility alone prevents these private exchanges from enabling the kind of accountability needed for transparent, accessible government.
We have a lot of media and pseudo-media organizations in Richmond that could potentially be a part of creating and maintaining the public record. There are some gaps to be filled in, especially in the area of retaining and archiving past copies of news stories, interviews and broadcasts. I'm thankful that we have a public access television station that is able to record and archive many government meetings. I'm thankful that we still have a local newspaper where the stories they investigate and publish live on forever as public record.
The Palladium-Item in particular still presents civic leaders with the daily opportunity to communicate with (I believe) the largest single audience of constituents of any other media organization in town about the issues and opportunities facing Richmond; I hope more public officials make good use of that over time. (Again, full disclosure: I'm a member of the Pal-Item's volunteer editorial advisory board, but this post and the views in it are not necessarily those of the paper.)
Why It Matters
For some, the question of what transparency is and what it looks like in practice may be tedious, annoying, or just academic. After all, how can we afford to spend time talking about what PDF file is on what website when there are urgent issues of crime, poverty, economic depression, educational challenges and more that we need to address?
The answer is in part what I wrote about earlier this week in saying that civic engagement doesn't end when we vote our chosen leaders into office. If we're to actually make a dent in breaking out of problematic cycles and really "moving the needle" in Richmond's prospects for thriving, we can't just wait for help to arrive in the form of political leadership or new private investment.
We need to make it so that anyone with even a passing interest in addressing the challenges we face can be fully informed and fully engaged, and transparency from the stewards of our shared resources (tax dollars, public infrastructure and more) is essential for that. We love to gasp at the stories of the federal government paying obscene amounts of money for products or services and we delight when watchdog groups catch this "fleecing" in the name of saving taxpayer dollars. Shouldn't we crave at least the possibility of letting observant third parties find new efficiencies at the local level, too?
Again, let our community leaders strive not just to meet the basic legal requirements of disclosure, but to proactively offer the documents, reports, data and on-the-record conversations that will make members of the public their collaborators in government efficiency, instead of their adversaries in a struggle for power and information.
Do you agree with this call to action? If so, I hope you'll share it in some form with your elected officials and ask for their response.
Do you have alternative definitions of transparency or other thoughts about what should look like in your community? I hope you'll share your comments below.