Monthly Archives: February 2013

Voting Procedures Still on the Public Agenda at State and National Levels

Voter registration, an issue that some had optimistically assumed was resolved two decades ago by the  National Voter Registration Act  has emerged – no, erupted – as a major issue, a mighty weapon wielded by forces that are only too well aware that the place to stifle the democratic process is the voting booth.  Tinkering with the electoral process has taken various forms shaped to the vulnerability of the venue.   In Minnesota, the pressure point was the Voter ID Amendment to the State Constitution.  Originally portrayed as a benign detail the pernicious proposal was soundly trounced by the electorate in the last election.

An unintended consequence of that ill-fated rush to exclude has awakened Minnesotans to the importance of voters’ rights and inspired elected officials scrutinize the details with unaccustomed care.

The first legislative measures to take stage center are related proposals to allow early voting and to eliminate a requirement that people have a valid excuse to vote by absentee ballot.   Thirty two states offer some form of early voting in which there is no requirement for a valid excuse.  In some cases the votes are counted immediately; in others votes are not tabulated until election day and voters have a chance to change their vote. Many Minnesotans consider early voting a non-issue since they have assumed that Minnesota has had early voting in place all along.

The proposal now before the state Legislature would allow Minnesota voters to vote up to 15 days before an election.  On-site registration would still be available following the same requirements as are currently in place for Election Day registration.  While opponents fear easy early voting gives too much power to parties and voter fraud, proponents of absentee voting argue that it is more convenient for voters and that it would shorten the lines on Election Day.  Governor Dayton has not weighed in except to be very clear about the fact that any decision will have to have bipartisan support.

With heightened awareness of the import of the electoral process per se, Minnesotans may be interested to learn more about what is happening in other states and at the national level.  The Brennan Center for Justice which has long studied voting practices recently produced a major proposal to “modernize voter registration and bring America’s election system into the 21st Century.”  The plan, known as the Voter Registration Modernization (VRM), is the centerpiece of the Voter Empowerment Act introduced last month by a raft of legislators and prominently mentioned in the President’s State of the Union Address.

Those who hatched their nefarious plans to skew the American electoral process by tinkering with the “details” may find that shining light on those details has illuminated the gaps in a system that is now enjoying unprecedented attention.

Minnesotans out-voted every state in the nation in the last election.  We captured the national headlines with defeat of the Voter ID Amendment, once on its way to easy passage.  We have reason to be proud of our record.  We have a concomitant responsibility to follow what is happening in the State Legislature and in Congress.  We know from experience what it takes to keep a collective eye on the electoral process — constant vigilance is the price of liberty.


A Place at the Table: A Documentary that Provides Food for Thought

It’s Saturday morning, time to listen to The Weekend Edition and to think about what’s happening in the world.  This week there’s talk about the Oscars, of course, about Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, baseball, sequestration and then, a feature that I hope everyone caught.  It’s a piece about the forthcoming documentary, A Place at the Table, set to open in theaters around the nation on March 1.  (I have tried with no avail to track down local options)    Please take a few minutes to listen to the interview with the producers, the experts, and, most of all, the voices of real people struggle with  “food insecurity.”

Take time, too, to read the early comments to the brief interview – enlightening…..

In past posts I’ve written about the big picture of hunger – the right to food as a human right, the need to rethink agricultural policy and U.S. investments in research, hunger as an education issue and the need to move from stopgap to holistic policy to cope with what is, after all, a solvable human condition.

A Place at the Table presents the “why” of the dilemma.  It tells the real-life stories of children and families trapped in the poverty cycle, mainstream Americans trying to earn a living and to learn.  These are good hard-working people who are the collateral damage of a broken system.

The documentary includes the voices of and views of experts, including a sociologist, a nutrition policy leaders and an author, along with the experiences of a pastor, teachers and activists. Food insecurity is a huge problem that has an impact on everyone because the social, economic, economic and education implications are profound throughout society.

As most Minnesotans know by now, March is Minnesota FoodShare Month.  We work together to support the immediate needs of people who depend on the agencies, from major state institutions to local places of worship.  We share food and funds as well as awareness campaigns focus on the tragic fact that families in our community are going hungry through no fault of their own – and that we can help.

We also need to face the fact that we as a nation have within our purview the resources to solve this problem.  It’s complicated.  It will take collaboration among players with adversarial agendas.  It will take time.  It will mean that we will have to reexamine our basic belief in the right to food.  It will mean deconstructing a complex system that meets the voracious wants of some at the expense of the basic needs of others.  It may require retooling processing, shifting the research agenda, thinking in global as well as local terms.

A Place at the Table may possibly get the conversation started, especially if people of good will take time to listen to the preview and see the film.  Though its first run is in the theaters, the film will  no doubt travel a mix of digital routes in short order.


In an earlier post I did suggest that there would be a librarian-ish spin to future posts about Deaf History Month, March 13-April 15.  It’s only fair because the whole idea of a month to celebrate the history of the nation’s deaf community did come from a remarkable librarian, Alice Hagemeyer.  With her persistent pressure the National Association of the Deaf and the American Library Association established the Deaf History tradition in 2006.

Another reason for the spin is that one hard of hearing librarian continues the tradition with her Speak Up Librarian blog, managed by a “hard of hearing librarian who will never tell you to s-h-h-h.”  Sarah Wegley reinforced my interest in books that feature deaf and hard of hearing children (or dogs) that help explain deafness to kids.  I mention dogs because the first post I found on the Speak Up Librarian’s site was actually about a deaf dog, a border collie named Kiefer, a dog who signs and generously shares illustrations and explanations of ASL  Kiefer actually has his own Facebook page and blog, so children can understand when their friends and family members are deaf or hard of hearing.

Inspired by Kiefer I soon discovered a world of children’s books, both factual and fiction, for children who want to learn about deafness and Deaf culture.  Because I am not expert on Deaf culture or children’s books, I can only list the books, though my expectation is that the sources I’ve used exercised good judgment is writing, illustrating, publishing or putting them on library or bookstore shelves.

Carole Addabbo, Dina the Deaf Dinosaur

Lorraine Aseltine, Evelyn Mueller, Nancy Tait, I’m Deaf and It’s Okay

Josh Berk, The Dark Days of Hamburger Helper

Barbara D. Booth, Mandy

Andy Russell Bowe, A World of Knowing: A story about Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet

Keelin Carey, The Smart Princess and Other Deaf Tales

Patricia A. Dyreson, A Very Special Egg (also an introduction to Easter symbolism)

Kate Gaynor, Karen Quirke, illus A Birthday for Ben

Ron Hamilton, Peggy B. Deal (illus), Alan and the Baron

James Riggio Herlan, Nicole Simmonds, illus. Can You Hear a Rainbow?

Anthony John, Five Flavors of Dumb

Wendy Kupfer, Let’s Hear It for Almigal

Patricia Lakin, Robert C. Steele (illus), Dad and Me in the Morning

Christy Mackinnon, Silent Observer

Marlee Matlin and Doug Cooney, Nobody’s Perfect

Marlee Matalin, Deaf Child Crossing

Isaac Millman, Moses Goes to a Concert

Isaac Millman, Moses Sees a Play

Isaac Millman, Moses Goes to the Circus

Eifi Nijssen, Laurie

Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson, I Have a Sister, My Sister Is Deaf

Jean Davies Okimoto, A Place for Grace

Delia Ray, Singing Hands

Anita Riggio, Secret Signs: Along the Underground Railroad

Ginny Rorby, Hurt Go Happy

Gloria Roth Lowell, Karen Stormer Brooks, Elena’s Ears, Or How I Became the Best Big Sister in the World

Betty Rushford, Best Buddies and The Fruit of the Spirit

Pete Seeger, Paul DuBois Jacobs, The Deaf Musicians

Brian Selznick, Wonderstruck: A Novel in Worlds and Pictures

Andrea Stenn Stryer, Kami and the Yaks

Michael Thai, “Goodbye Tchaikovsky

Myron Uhlberg, Dad Jackie

Myron Uhlberg, Hands of My Father: A Hearty Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love

Jan Wahl, Kim Howard (lllus), Rosa’s Parrot

Dawn L. Watkins, The Spelling Window.

This incomplete list is the tip of a wonderful iceberg loaded with great books and great people.  Starting with the title and author it’s fairly easy to find more about reading level and content of individual books.

One way to learn about other books is to check the Gallaudet University Press which maintains a robust publisher’s list of children’s books and videos, many of which are great introductions for hearing youngsters who are learning about ASL in child care or pre-school.

Another good source is the Speak Up Librarian where Sarah not only speaks up but keeps up.  One resource she lists is her favorite blogs, a dozen or more sites that share tips on books and more resources of and for the deaf community.

Or ask your local librarian, ASL teacher or independent bookseller what’s the latest greatest book on their shelf or order list.  If you have problems finding a good read for a child speak up – and be sure your message is heard.

Deaf History Month – A Time and Tools to Explore 150 years of the Deaf Community in Mnnesota

Deaf History Month is like no other national celebration in many ways, including the fact that the month starts on March 13 and ends April 15, those dates being so important to Deaf history that the “deaf community has made an exception to the rule.”   I love it!

March 15 commemorates the 1988 victory of the ‘Deaf President Now’ movement when students at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC staged a protest demanding a deaf President for the University.  I. King Jordan was named President as a result of their demonstration.  The month ends on April 15, 1817, the day the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, CT, the first public school for the deaf, opened its doors.   Mid-month is the commemoration of the signing of the charter for Gallaudet University by President Lincoln in 1864.

Deaf History Month is unique in another way also.  The very existence of the celebration is a tribute to a single librarian, Alice Hagemeyer, who in 2006 led the campaign for the American Library Association and the National Association of the Deaf.  Lamenting the lack of services for the deaf and the deaf community’s disinterest in libraries, Hagemeyer pointed out that the ASL sign for public library isn’t city library but hearing library…..

 With a special nod to Alice Hagemeyer, this and future posts about Deaf History Month will had an admittedly librarian-biased cast.  The month offers a chance to explore some of the people, the stories and the resources of deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing Minnesotans.

In an October 2012 issue of Digital Delights, of Minnesota Reflections, Teika Pakalns offers n illuminating introduction to the deaf-related resources recently added to the Minnesota Digital Library.  “Until now,” she writes, “deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing Minnesotans have been all but invisible in the archives of Minnesota’s history.”  Digital technology and a partnership between the Minnesota Digital Library and the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing have changed everything.  Using digital technology the two organizations have taken on the task of opening the collections of Charles Thompson Memorial Hall, the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens, and the Minnesota Academy for the Deaf Alumni Association Museum.

The history of the deaf community and services in Minnesota is rich with resources and great stories that are only now being told.  What is now opened to the public and to scholars is the rich story of the lives and accomplishments of the deaf community.

Of course deaf and hard of hearing people have always been involved in the history of the state.  Some wonderful legends, such as that of Oscar E. Garrison, the deaf man who founded Wayzata, have survived. The stories of other lives, contributions and impact are lost altogether.

Records in the Minnesota Digital Library actually begin with the opening of the present-day Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf.  Established in 1863 in a Faribault storefront it was soon moved to nearby Mott Hall, the start of today’s campus and the site of countless monumental events in the history of deaf education.  As just one example, Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell attended at least one national conference in Faribault.  There they discussed the advisability of employing deaf teachers to teach deaf students which, Pakalns notes, “became part of the oralism vs. manualism debate” that continues to this day.

In 1885 graduates of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf held their first reunion; they voted then to form an association that became the Minnesota Association of the Deaf (now the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens).  The records of the MADC are also in the digital library.  Pakalns cites many of the names to be found in those files, among them the name of Cadwallader Lincoln Washburn of the famed flour milling family  A graduate of the Academy for the Deaf Washburn went on to become a prominent artist renowned for his drypoint etchings

Washburn was friends with one Charles Thompson, a wealthy Minnesotan who had a horse farm near Windom and a camp at the “deaf colony’ in Alexandria.  Charles Thompson and his wife Margaret Brooks Thompson became generous benefactors of the deaf community.

When Charles Thompson died Margaret dedicated the first deaf clubhouse in America to his memory.  The Charles Thompson Memorial Hall, designed by Thompson’s deaf friend and noted architect Olof Hanson, was completed in 1918.  At what must have been the groundbreaking ceremony, a raft of dignitaries joined deaf and hard of hearing Minnesotans to celebrate the auspicious occasion.  The Minnesota Reflections digital collection includes an article from The Companion magazine, dated November 15, 1916, which describes the event in detail.

Today, Charles Thompson Memorial Hall is familiar to many Twin Citians as the stately building at 1824 Marshall West of Fairview in St. Paul, just across the street from the Merriam Park Library.  As of December 30, 2011 The Charles Thompson Memorial Hall is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The designation establishes Thompson Hall’s historical significance “as a building that continues to serve its original mission as a clubhouse and civic center for the deaf community.”  The recognition also celebrates “the historical contributions of the community in establishing and maintaining this cherished building.”  Members of the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing community are already at work on plans for the Centenary of the Charles Thompson Hall set for 2016!

Technology also delivers a lengthy interview about the history of Charles Thompson Memorial Hall.  The interview with Doug Bahl is part of the Minnesota Deaf Heritage Interview Series which records stories of 14 prominent deaf Minnesotans recorded by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division in 1997 and remastered in 2011.  The video collection is made accessible through ASL, open captions, voiceovers and transcripts of audio content with video descriptions included.

Take time during Deaf History Month to explore the riches of Minnesota Reflections and the primary resources that tell the stories of Minnesota’s heritage contained there.  Bear in mind that the Minnesota Academy for the Deaf is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, a good time to reflect on the history with the help of this ever-expanding digital treasure..   You’ll find yourself immersed in a fascinating community about which most of us have much to learn.  The good news, the tools are great and the stories are even better!

School Breakfast – We Know It’s Important – How about EXCITING!

When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”
A.A. Milne

As usual, Pooh has it right.  His positive mental attitude about breakfast could be the theme of National School Breakfast Month, March 4-8, 2013.I

Still, for some families the answer to the “What’s for breakfast?” question is wrenching – No cereal, no peanut butter, no fresh fruit because payday isn’t till Friday. And in other homes harried parents face the drudgery of serving frozen waffles to sleepy foot-draggers is a challenge.

Let’s face it, breakfast generally gets short shrift.  For many of us breakfast is a meal-in-a-minute routine about as perfunctory as brushing one’s teeth.  No charm, no human interaction, as the cares of the day invade, the minutiae of catching the bus or remembering the smart phone. We’d much prefer to get to the job or the pre-dawn meeting or to meet the elder set at the coffee shop to discuss the world situation.

The research is incontrovertible on the topic – breakfast is a good thing for kids.  Young learners can stay awake, learn faster, keep up on the playground, develop healthy habits, improve behavior in the classroom, and make friends over a good breakfast.  Teachers know that breakfast works.  In a 2012 study entitled “Hunger in Our Schools: Share Our Strength’s Teachers Report” 1000 public school teachers made it clear.  Nine out of ten teachers say breakfast is very important for academic achievement.  Teachers credit breakfast for increased concentration (95%), better academic performance (89%), and better behavior in the classroom (73%).  Teachers also say that, thanks to breakfast served at school, students are less likely to be tardy or absent (56%).

The good news is that schools, especially school nutritionists, are working hard to re-imagine how school breakfast might happen.  The US Department of Agriculture has published a robust paper outlining “Strategies for School Breakfast Program Expansion”, adapted from a University of Wisconsin Extension Family Living Program.  The study considers a host of possibilities, some of which are admittedly controversial.

  • Breakfast in the Classroom, a program through which students start or break in the morning for breakfast.
  • Grab ‘n’ go breakfast where the kids pick up an old-fashioned lunchbag chock full of good breakfast
  • Mobile breakfast carts that visit the classroom,
  • and many more options for serving breakfast to hungry young scholars.

Some of the ideas have more to do with the management of school breakfast programs.  Teachers have weighed in on some of these options as well:

  • Allowing schools to serve breakfast at no charge to any students who want it that day, regardless of their household income.  The school claims the federal reimbursement based on the eligibility category for that student.  The option requires no additional staffing and eliminates the stigma that can be associated with free meals at school by making breakfast free for all kids. (58%)
  • Reducing red tape that limits participation (61%)
  • Most important, 75% of the teachers agree is to increase communication with parents about what school meals are available.  Statistics show that of the more than 22 million students who ate a free or reduced price lunch in 2011, fewer than half also ate breakfast at school.

Clearly, more organizations and individuals that care about children’s health and learning need to be involved in promoting and explaining the importance of breakfast and the availability of school breakfast options.  Child care providers, grandparents, communities of faith, the medical profession, librarians, the media, the community at large need to know about what’s possible and to make sure that parents sending their kids off to school know their rights.  It’s actually a pretty easy sell – it’s just too big a job to be shouldered by a few.  The website for the National School Breakfast Week  and the Minnesota School Nutrition Association are packed with ideas for campaigns, posters, contests and promotion.

Like Pooh, think about how to make breakfast the most exciting part of t he day!


Minnesota Gets a C+ on Transparency Tracking Tools

As the Legislature tackles the issues of state  – the economy, education, health, the environment, transportation and more — open government advocates know that the issue of transparency is the subtle common weave and warp of the process itself.  Though transparency remains an implicit element that seldom steps into the spotlight, a modest “C+” grade in transparency may capture the attention of Minnesota voters accustomed to being Way Above Average.

That not-much-above grade was conferred by Minnesota by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund in its 2012 report entitled Following the Money 2012: How the 50 states rate in providing online access to government spending data.  It’s important to underscore that the findings focus only on spending and only on online access to data.

The study is the prequel to the more recent US PIRG study of online access to city government spending.  It applies similar criteria and a parallel process to rate the fifty states.

The good news is that the states in general have made progress.  The 2012 study is the third annual ranking of states’ progress towards Transparency 2.0, a recognized  standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.  Minnesota is listed as one of fourteen states categorized as “emerging.”

In one way, this study itself is encouraging; as the researchers note, the life history of opening the government checkbook is relatively short.  In 2006 Congress passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act which instructed the OMB to shine a light on federal spending by creating a single searchable website of federal awards.  Soon thereafter the states began opening their online checkbooks to the public.  Rising to the increased level of expectation the move towards openness has progressed apace.

As with the more recent study of city government, this analysis of state government, conducted by the U.S. PIRG looked at these features:

  • Comprehensiveness – contracts with private companies, subsidies, quasi-public agencies, leases and concessions to private companies
  • One-Stop – a single website where residents can search all government expenditures
  • One-click searchable and downloadable

The study cites several examples of ways in which Transparency 2.0 websites save dollars by reducing the number of costly information requests from residents, watchdog groups, government bodies and companies and the media.

Further, the report affirms that implementation of Transparency 2.0 costs less than one might expect.  Some states have set aside funds for re-tooling, while others have integrated new policies and procedures with existing funds.  Minnesota changes have been paid for out of existing funds.  The SWIFT (Statewide Integrated Financial Tools) project currently being implemented by the State of Minnesota is one ongoing effort to achieve Transparency Standard 2.0.

For those who care about where Minnesota is on the curve the news is neutral – we’re right in the dead middle.  Fourteen states got “C” grades with scores ranging from 79 (Georgia) to 66 (North Dakota).  Minnesota comes in at a grade of 78 along with Alabama, New Jersey and Oklahoma.  It is interesting to note that the size of the state budget does not determine the level of transparency.

The transparency super-stars have done extra-credit work, of course.  Some states provide detailed performance evaluation of agencies and contractors; other offer mapping tools where the public can see how specific areas of the state benefit from government spending    Information provided by some states is more comprehensive and some states provide extensive integration with local government, a process strongly endorsed by the researchers, and further explored in the more recent study of city government fiscal transparency.















Re-thinking the public’s right to know vs. the public’s right to privacy

American democracy is a conspiracy of special interests against the general interest, but every special interest thinks that it is the general interest.  Michael Kinsley, Washington Post, February 20, 2005.

Media attention to open government issues has always tended to veer toward getting the interviews and opening the books when the spotlight is on an individual by whom or about whom information is either disclosed  or withheld.  We love to hear and talk about people more than issues or cold, inert information.  Just as important,  the tension between proponents or privacy and supporters of transparency makes good copy.

Clashes between privacy and open government are everywhere in the media these days, leaving confusion and concern on the minds of many Minnesotans.  As one of those trying to unravel the issues I recently revisited a  paper  I had filed years ago.  Entitled “Caught in the Middle: Access to State Government Records in the United Statesthe paper was presented by Richard Pearce-Moses at the Japan-U.S. Archives Seminar in May 2007.  At the time Pearce-Moses was Director of Digital Government Information at the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.  In this highly charged privacy/transparency environment, it’s worth a re-read. 

Pearce-Moses defines his basic argument at the outset: 

What is the value of archives if not to provide access to information? Why spend time and effort collecting and organizing records if no one will ever use them?  Access to information is a cornerstone of the archival profession.  At the same time, archivists recognize and respect individuals’ and corporations’ rights to privacy, as well as legal restrictions on access to records in their custody.  The irony for public archives is that, at least in English, the word public embraces two contradictory senses: the records are public, in the sense they are of the people, but they are necessarily public, as some are confidential.

He is quick to remind the reader of the clear distinction between the requirement of government to preserve the record and the lack of parallel responsibility on the part of corporations and private individuals.

The legal aspect of access Pearce-Moses defines as Protecting the Government’s Interests vs Privacy.  The practical application of the law, he notes, usually focuses on “records”, including all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics.”  The word “all”, he says, “incompasses a lot of material.”  The question itself has significant implications when it relates to states’ providing for inspection of public records.

Courts, he writes, have routinely held that access to records is subject to reasonable rules and regulations to avoid disruption of regular business.  However, the agency and the individual or organization making the request may have different ideas as to what they consider to be unreasonable disruption.

The thorny issue often lies in the area of definitions of information, records, and public records – an increasingly cloudy area that has loomed for a couple of decades. Exploding technology has become a staggering challenge to Deciders in today’s tsunami of tools that few have or take the time to consider in the longer term.

Neither bilateral nor ad hoc thinking is sufficient.  It will not suffice to tweak old models. This paper reminds me of just how essential it is for the concerned parties, including the public,  to drop the cudgels and come to grips with the fact that we must reframe the very issues of the public right to privacy and the public right to know.  The processes that protect those rights must flow from not dictate policy.



What’s Really Happening – Or Not Happening – At Mpls Central Library

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.?  The quote belongs to our beleaguered postal employees, of course.  It also applies to iindependent researchers with a deadline – people like me.

And so I headed out this morning for the Central Library, inhibited by the icey sidewalks far more than by the purveyors of evil about whom I have been reading in the Strib of late.  Since I hadn’t been to the library for a couple of weeks I had assumed that the letter writers to the Strib had the latest take on what goes on at this beloved bastion of learning.

During my hours at Central Library I observed:

  • Moms and dads, caregivers  and grandparents, introducing toddlers to the wonders of the Children’s Room.
  • A couple of grey-haired gentlemen deeply engrossed in the Genealogy 4th floor Genealogy collection.
  •  A clutch of young folks digging into the Government Documents collection
  • A young man earnestly exploring the Foundations collection.
  • Two scholarly-type colleagues delving into the magnificent riches of the Minneapolis Collection.
  • Dozens of seekers, or others who don’t have broadband in their homes, using the technology in an earnest search for employment or food assistance or housing options..
  • Avid readers eying the exhibit of fiction related to  “Growing Up.:.”
  • Earnest citizens solving problems over a cup of coffee at Dunn Brothers.
  • A string of teens obviously on a field trip from a local high school, last seen headed for the revamped Teen Room on the Second Floor.
  • A gaggle of “suits” absorbed in the business collection.
  • Bargain hunters spending their lunch hour treasure-hunting at the Friends book store.
  • An ESL class or discussion group hard at work in one of the meeting rooms adjacent to the New Americans collection.
  • Bibliophiles engrossed in a read, totally oblivious to their environment.
  • Optimistic green thumbers exploring the early seed catalogs.
  • Aristocratic looking gentlemen reading the Wall Street Journal.
  • Library staff and volunteers on hand to point me and my learning colleagues in the right direction.

I saw Minneapolis residents working to solve personal and civic issues in an environment rich with information and conducive to clear thinking.  I’m sure some of these residents of the city are homeless, at the library to get a grip on a job or a home or a life.

What I did not see were the thugs that others apparently encounter – or fear they might encounter – at Minneapolis Central Library.  The public library may not be to everyone’s taste, but then again it is for everyone.

Pew Probe Proves Minnesotans Have Polling Practices Down Pat

Unaccustomed as we are to patting ourselves on the back, Minnesotans can take pride in the results of the recent Elections Performance Index issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  Minnesota joins Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin in the winners’ circle of high performing states.

The Pew study is the first examination of election administration performance that covers all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

The results of the study is a detailed – and fun – online interactive map that election officials and voters can use to assess the details of election performance by each state.

The goal of Pew is to build a flexible and manageable measurement tool based on a well-defined list of indicators.

The findings of the study are based on a methodology carefully defined and described in the full report.  Key indicators include these:

>      Polling location wait time

>      Availability of voting information tools online

>      Number of rejected voter registrations

>      Percentage of voters with registration or absentee ballot problems

>      Number of military and overseas ballots were rejected

>      Voter turnout

>      Accuracy of voting technology

This report is based on the 2008 and 2010 elections.  Researchers indicate that the online report will be updated with complete 2012 data when they become available in late 2013.



Minneapolis Gets a Failing Grade in Transparency

In this age of DIY informed citizenship governing agencies at every level have accelerated demand, and cost-effective tools, to assure that the proverbial man or woman on the street can be an independent searcher of truth in government.  At the federal level, advocacy groups, e.g. the National Security Archive, the Center for Effective Government, Open the Government, the Sunlight Foundation, Public Integrity and a host of others have probed the intricacies of the bureaucracies.  Because practices of state governments vary greatly, advocacy groups differ markedly by state, with many states having more than one watchdog group keeping an eye on the laws, regulations and their implementation.

What is new in the transparency arena is a groundbreaking report on current practice at the city level.

In January 2013 the U.S. Pubic Interest Research Group Education Fund issued a hefty report on the degree to which residents have access to information about the use of taxpayer funds in thirty of the nation’s largest cities, including the City of Lakes. Bearing the provocative title Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities, the study offers a wake-up call to voters in the city of Minneapolis, a metropolis inclined to rate itself as “way above average.”   On the rating score of 1 to 100, Minneapolis rated a 54, which researchers translate to a “D-.”  (That’s D-minus”)

Disclaimers first:  it is important to note that the study pertains to transparency in government expenditures only, not to the range of government operations and services.  Second, the focus of this study is not on cities’ transactions with other governments.  Instead, the study focuses on city government interactions with non-government entities, e.g. contracting, subsidies, financing and service requests.

Third, researchers looked only at online access as a measure of transparency.

The operating principle guiding the researchers is that government at every level should work to achieve a standard of “Transparency 2.0”, a standard briefly defined as “encompassing, one-stop, and one-click.”

Based on that Transparency 2.0 Standard the researchers employ twelve scoring criteria to measure availability, accessibility and searchability.  The 2.0 Standards were formulated by U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysts and researchers based on conversations with city and state officials, U.S PIRG’s past work on government online transparency and accountability, and an inventory of current city transparency features across the country.  They are defined this way:

  • Encompassing:  A user-friendly web portal provides residents the ability to search detailed information about government contracts, spending, subsidies and tax expenditures for all government entities.  Tools also allow residents to track online how well public officials respond to requests about quality-of-life services. For example, cities that follow Transparency 2.0 standards  for contracts, grants, subcontracts and discretionary spending with nonprofit or private vendors would:  Open their checkbooks to the public, allowing residents to view the value of payments made by city government to specific vendors;  Disclose details on the goods or services provided or a copy of the contract for each payment;  Extend this disclosure to every cit office, as opposed to a side project for a few departments;  Disclose all spending, without a minimum or maximum threshold for the amount spent on the good or services;  Disclose contracts and expenditures from previous years, along residents and officials to track patterns in awarding contracts and to measure current contracts against benchmarks;   Disclose timely information…. Disclose all bids for each contract rather than just the winning bid …Disclose spending information at the city’s quasi-public agencies, such as water, transit or housing authorities. …
  • One-Stop: Residents can search all government expenditures on a single website.
  • One-click Searchable and Downloadable: Residents can search data with a single query or browse common sense categories. Residents can sort data on government spending by recipient, amount, granting agency, purpose or keyword.  Residents can also download data and conduct detailed off-line analyses.

Thus measured, Minneapolis is one of eight of the thirty cities that falls (literally) into the “lagging cities “ – D- range.  ‘Laggers,’ as described in the study,  “provide residents with basic spending documents, such as the budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAER) – a document that reports on the city’s actual spending and financial solvency.”  While lagging cities also provide residents with service request portals “these cities provide little other spending information.”

The PIRG study acknowledges that cities are strapped for funds and that access to information must compete with a host of essential municipal services.  Still, they maintain that “as cities are forced to make difficult budgetary decisions in tough economic times, it is even more important for the public to be able to understand how tax dollars are spent.  This includes spending through the tax code and subsidies that would otherwise escape public scrutiny.”

This exhaustive study goes on to describe the methodology in detail.  It also expands on the basic tenets of “Encompassing”, “One-Stop” and “One-Click Seaarchable and Downloadable”.

Based on the premise that  a system design’s reach should exceed its grasp, the study offers some intriguing thoughts about “cutting edge transparency features.”  Researchers describe projects in which cities disclose details on city government revenue including disclosure of details on tax collections.  Other cities post information that may reveal and thus prevent conflicts of interest.   Still other cities provide public searchable information about how city leaders spend taxpayer dollars.

Several case studies profile the state of transparency in major cities.  It is no surprise that the largest cities fare well in the comparisons.  The authors are forthcoming about the obstacles and challenges that city governments have in design and implementation of transparency systems.  First on the list is limited financial resources; Minneapolis respondents indicated that “given the costs, it would not be in the best interest of our taxpayers to dramatically increase our level of transparency.”  It is worthy of note that New York City, a model Straight A municipality, plans to open source the code for its system later this year, a likely boon to cities that can save a bundle on system design if the NYC model fits their needs.

Cities are also hampered by antiquated technology, by privacy and legal concerns and by poor coordination among departments.  Each of these obstacles is described in some detail with specifics related to individual cities.  In conclusion, the researchers observe:

Public budgets are the most concrete expressions of public values – articulated in dollars and cents.  AS cities grapple with difficult decisions in an effort to make budgetary ends meet, transparency websites provide an important tool to allow both citizens and civil servants to make informed choices.  With continued progress toward online transparency, citizens will be able to access information one very dollar of their city’s spending – so they can actively and constructively engage in public debates about how these dollars are spent.

Some Minneapolis city officials and staffers will no doubt bristle at the D- grade.  It’s hard enough to show a failing report card to parents who love you just the way you are; taxpayers who care about transparency may not be so understanding.

At the same time, many officials and staffers who are responsible for system design and funding will welcome the nudge.  This support for the Transparency 2.0 Standard affirms their efforts to ensure open city government.

The U.S. PIRG study underscores the fact that transparency is the hallmark of an A+ city, which all Minneapolitans know that we can be if we just try a little harder…..

Note:  The complete study with appendices and references, notes on specific ratings and more is available online