February 27, 2015

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Reflecting on Sunshine Week

Last Wednesday evening, I attended the D.C. Open Government Summit: Street View, which took place at the National Press Club in conjunction with Sunshine Week. The Summit was sponsored by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, a non-profit that “seeks to enhance the public’s access to government information and ensure the transparency of government operations of the District of Columbia.” The Summit successfully focused on two main ideas – using government information to innovate and using government information to inform. I left the Summit encouraged by the enthusiasm for innovation and transparency in the attendees and among some District of Columbia government leaders, but also discouraged because there was a consensus that Washington, DC is still far behind cities such as New York, Kansas City, and Boston in using technology for innovation in government and there is not a vision or financial commitment from the Mayor’s office to facilitate government-wide progress.

In her keynote address, Traci Hughes, the Director of the District of Columbia Office of Open Government, commented that her office only has two employees and almost no budget beyond that for salaries. She has, therefore, been looking to certain District government agencies and non-profit partners outside of government to support her vision for a more open government. Ms. Hughes commented, for example, that the Council of the District of Columbia’s General Counsel has been a great partner, as has been the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which has been a leader in making information about education available to parents. Ms. Hughes recognized Code for DC, the all-volunteer local chapter of Code for America, for producing “ANC Finder,” an application that provides residents, based on their address, with information about their Advisory Neighborhood Commission – DC’s hyper-local level of government where each Commissioner represents approximately 2,000 people.

Ms. Hughes, however, has a broader vision for open access to the District of Columbia’s data and records. Ms. Hughes stated that the Council of the District of Columbia and the Mayor need to pass legislation to drive the open government process. In addition, the city must do more to bridge the gaps between people with varying levels of Internet access. I interpreted this statement as her way of saying that many more city services should be accessible through mobile devices. Indeed, a 2013 Pew study indicates that 10% of urban residents have a smartphone, but no home broadband connection.

Making government services available through mobile devices was one of the themes of the evening. The representatives from Code for DC stressed the importance of moving government processes to mobile platforms. The process of applying for public housing, for example, often involves filling out a different paper form for each potential housing option for which a person is applying. While the non-profit Bread for the City is currently helping people with the paper forms, Code for DC volunteers are working toward a technology-based solution. In addition, people are lobbying to make filing a Freedom of Information Act request and contesting a property tax assessment possible through mobile devices. I had a great side conversation with a Code for DC volunteer who has mapped the DC restaurants that have been cited recently for health code violations. His next step is developing a mobile app. Given the ubiquity of the violations, I was glad I had already eaten.

Beyond mobile, one of the most impressive recent innovations by the DC government is Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F live streaming its monthly meetings. Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings are not typically broadcast on public access television, therefore live streaming makes meetings available, for example, to people with kids who can’t get out in the evening and senior citizens or people with disabilities who cannot get to the meeting location. Live streaming uses only $75 of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s budget per meeting and people can ask questions directly beneath the feed or by reaching out to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s Chairman via Twitter. Another Advisory Neighborhood Commission records its meetings and posts them on YouTube subsequently. While these are great solutions for constituents who are tech savvy and have fast home broadband connections, to reach the widest possible audience, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions still must continue to use both on-line and off-line engagement methods.

While increasing participation is very important, so is facilitating accountability. A local activist and Washington Post reporter both discussed the importance of responses to FOIA requests in conducting research, particularly on under-the-radar issues that are nonetheless affecting city residents’ lives. FOIAs have been a critical tool in preventing legal on-line gambling in DC and exposing corruption in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer regarding commercial property assessments.

Based on the Summit, here are my three recommendations: (1) The DC Office of Open Government needs to have a more productive and collaborative relationship with the Mayor’s Office. The Mayor’s office needs to promote a culture that makes sharing information with both the public and across the city government a priority; (2) Cities that are integrating technology into governance effectively, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, have someone leading those efforts from the Mayor’s office. Washington, DC needs leadership at that level; and (3) To eliminate the inconsistencies across city agencies, the DC government needs to establish written, uniform policies for responding to FOIAs and providing data sets that are easy to manipulate by members of the public and post these policies where the public can review them. The seeds of an open, efficient government exist, but will only grow with strong and committed leadership.

Comments

  1. fascinating post. i wondered: has citizen privacy as a concern been mentioned at all at the summit?

    • avatar Jeffrey Tignor says:

      No, citizen privacy was not discussed very much. Finding the right balance between using technology to foster civic engagement while not compromising privacy or the security of the electoral process is a challenge. Because many local governments are not as far along in their use of data as private sector companies, for example, I don’t think local officials are seeing this as a big issue yet. I am concerned about this issue too.

      • thanks for clarifying, jeff! i’d say, that if there’s one area in which the U.S. will have heated on data protection and data security, it’ll be election privacy. not in the least, because the republican party seems to lag far behind in terms of data mining skills.