Tag Archives: transparency

Stories amplify the adventure of open government

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”Lewis Carroll

As we approach the fifty year anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) we are challenged to balance these parallel forces of “adventure” and “explanation”. We need to consider the possibility that the “dreadful time” spent on legal and journalistic explanations of the Constitution has somehow sapped the “adventure” out of the right of the people to information by and about the government. In truth, the right to know is itself an adventure so bold, so woven into the very fabric of this democracy, that the essence may be obscured in endless explanation.

Proponents who staunchly defend the fine points of FOIA have brilliantly and adamantly fought for open government. Wise defenders of the principle creatively respond – and help to shape – evolving social structures and communication strategies. Advocates collaborate to ward off insidious threats to the people’s right to know. Still, the democratic tenet remains as implicit as it is complex. After a half century of worthy service, FOIA hovers on a precipice reconstructed by fundamental change in politics, the media, economics, technology and the body politic.

When a naïve reporter recently referred to FOIA as “obscure”, advocates wisely shifted from mere explanations to fiery examples of adventures, to stories of how and why FOIA matters – why, after a half century, FOIA is itself an adventure in preserving a democratic principle in an era of cataclysmic change.

The fact is, the right to know is by definition linked to content, complicated by the essential reality that information is implicit, invisible, elusive, built into the genetic structure of the ultimate decision or end product. Information remains inert until and unless sentient beings transform it into knowledge that supports “adventures.” It was neither a politician nor a journalist but Goethe himself who reminded us that “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” The adventure lies in the doing….”

The challenge has always been to trace, to describe, and to realize the value and essence of transparency. The sine qua non is the right of the people to hold government accountable as an authoritative and accessible source of information that ultimately matters “in the doing.” Fifty years after passage of FOIA we may need more adventure to make it real!

In an earlier blog post my emphasis was on “putting a face” on information, https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/open-government-putting-a-face-on-an-implicit-right/  I now favor the energy that “adventure” suggests. Though we need explanations of how to exercise the right to know, as FOIA turns Fifty we need adventure stories in which FOIA is the weapon the hero wields to save the day!

Adventure engages today’s body politic, not as inert consumers but active players in the challenge to sustain this democracy. Participants in the adventure who once relied on established media are overwhelmed, and often misinformed, by the political, economic and technological transformation of the media. Today’s information environment places greater demands on engaged citizens to be independent seekers, learners and interpreters of the facts, of truth.

During the build-up to “FOIA at Fifty” advocates are mounting a major campaign to “Fix FOIA”. The partisan initiative is under Congressional discussion now as members consider recent legislation, action precipitated by a recent congressional report that concluded that the FOI process “is broken and in need of serious change.” (http://www.standard.net/frontpage/2015/02/09/Lawmakers-move-to-strengthen-freedom-of-information-act.html

The challenge now is to add zest to the explanations that politics demand. My humble hope is to collect and share stories that illuminate the adventure – anecdotes that amplify the contributions of individuals who first inspired the mandate, to celebrate those who preserve that same spirit of adventure even as they craft the legal structures that preserve the essence of open government.

Journalist and writer Jon Meacham offers this guidance in the pursuit of the adventure of an informed democracy:

The American Dream may be slipping away. We have overcome such challenges before. To recover the Dream requires knowing where it came from, how it lasted so long and why it matters so much.

In fact, the Dream lasted so long, in part at least, because informed citizens have exercised their right to know. Stories that illustrate FOI at work matter so much because they illustrate the impact of the law. Adventures matter simply because “explanations take such a dreadful time.”

 

Independence Day Birthday Greetings and a Public Spotlight on FOIA at 48

On my first day working in the DC office of OpenTheGovernment.org I was introduced to the security system, access code 7466.  Colleagues seem bemused that I did not immediately recognize this as July 4, 1966, date of the initial passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Since then the code has changed and I have learned more than I ever expected to know about FOIA.  Truth to tell, I have come to have enormous respect for this fundamental legislation, the bulwark of our nation’s protection of the people’s right to know.

Though some would say that FOIA is more honored in the breach than in the observance I worry much more about the fact that, for far too many of us, FOIA has come to be synonymous with national security, the province of attorneys and journalists, a mysterious process too pricey, too arcane, too complex for mere mortals.  In truth, FOIA is an indispensable tool that is available and accessible to the rest of us, which is why we need to engage in the ongoing hoopla surrounding FOIA as it approaches middle age….

Like most Americans FOIA, at the tender age of 48, is not about to sit on the shelf. Instead, FOIA is hot, ready to strut its stuff, retool, reinvent, whatever it takes to embrace the political and technological challenges of the day.  FOIA is taking its turn on center stage.  Everyone goes through this as the Big 5-0 approaches – not a bad idea for laws to pause for reflection at the same pace.

The 48th birthday celebration for FOIA blasted off on June 24 when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014.(  http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/alb14471 )

The intent of the bill is to significantly restrict the government’s ability to withhold information by citing what is known by insiders as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.   The act also strengthens the FOIA ombuds Office of Government Services (OGIS), promotes more proactive online access to government information, and pushes back on agency attempts to weaken the 2007 Open Government Act amendments.  An earlier, less stringent, bill has already passed unanimously in the House. (FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, February 2014)

Response to the Leahy-Cornyn proposal is immediate and generally positive from the open government community.  A quick google search will disclose comments by a host of advocacy groups of every stripe.  What matters now is that elected representatives understand that strengthening FOIA—the backbone of transparency and accountability — matters to “the rest of us,” the folks who care about food safety or the impact of fracking or the new EPA standards or transportation or children’s health or toxins or transportation safety or…..

It’s easy enough to brush up a bit on all things FOIA:

*If you’re the sort who likes to start from the beginning, check out the official FOIA website at http://www.foia.gov/index.html– keep in mind FOIA is a work in progress so if you see ways it can be improved, now’s the time….

*For specifics on FOIA at work, check out the National Security Archive, the unflappable agency that just keeps digging to unearth records long shielded by policy and practice from the public eye. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/the_archive.html

*To learn about examples of the impact of FOIA as the force behind the headlines, take a look at the “FOIA Files” compiled by Sunshine in Government – see http://sunshineingovernment.org/wordpress/?page_id=1533

*The public ombuds within government is the Office of Government Services, a major target of the Leahy-Cornyn bill – Learn about OGIS at https://ogis.archives.gov

*More to the point, engage in the process.  The folks at the National Archives and Records Administration, a major player in all things FOIA, are currently re-thinking their role and processes.  It’s fun to join the discussion of the real people who really do the real work of tending the daily business of open government   http://blogs.archives.gov/foiablog/2014/06/25/foia-advisory-committee-begins-setting-priorities/)

*If you’re the voyeuristic type that just can’t get enough of this stuff, check out The Government Attic, a treasure trove of stuff that’s been gathering dust all these years, now released through the FOIA process – today’s favorite, the FBI files back when they had time to worry about “The Untouchables” (http://www.governmentattic.org/11docs/FBIfilesUntouchablesTV_1948-1962.pdf}

The point is, let your fingers do the walking, and you’ll be a FOIA fan in short order.

As a FOIA fan you’ll need time to prep for the celebration of FOIA’s happy birthday on the 4th.   You’ll want to mention to the visiting President that transparency matters to Minnesotans.  You’ll need to get up to speed and engage in the buzz that  FOIA is getting these days.

Take away – A lot has changed since July 4, 1966.  Access to information by and about our government matters more than ever – we the people are increasingly responsible to be independent seekers and evaluators of resources, to hold our government accountable.  By default information access, open government, accountability will fall into the abyss of “everybody’s business and nobody’s business.”

As citizens it is a privilege to commemorate the birthday of FOIA by paying attention!  Those who shaped the fundamentals of our independence had a lot of confidence that we the people were the best deciders and that our decisions rest on good information by and about the government.   FOIA matters to all of us.

Besides, when approached in the proper spirit, birthday celebrations, even for  monumental laws approaching 50, can end up being pretty entertaining.

 

 

 

 

Open Data Jam set for February 22 – Unleashing the power of government information

It’s a lot like spinning straw into gold….transforming dormant information by and about the government into powerful info-tools that people can actually use to solve problems, create new products and services, learn about their community – and hold their government accountable.    It’s happening at the national level (at this week’s Datapalooza launched by the White House) and in vibrant communities around the country.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has announced that his office will host Minnesota’s first statewide mash-up between information mavens and the enormous wealth of public data just waiting to be brought to life.   Capitol Code: An Open Data Jam, is set for Saturday, February 22, at CoCo in Uptown Minneapolis. (http://cocomsp.com/locations/minneapolis/

Participants will have a chance to muck with data ranging from the vast resources of the Bureau of the Census to stashes of state stuff housed in a host of federal, state, regional and local agencies.

Capitol Code is open to citizens, analysts, business and community leaders, designers, government officials, media, software programmers, elected officials, advocates – well, anybody who wants to share ideas, learn – or model – some tricks of the trade, basically find out how to be a agile player in the information game.

The day is free and open.  Active partners in the project include MN.IT, E-Democracy.org, the Minnesota State Demographic Center and community technology groups including Open Twin Cities.

Be on the watch for information to follow through traditional and all the latest social media channels Capitol Code planners have at the ready.   Or call Nathan Bowie at the Secretary of State’s Office 651 297 8919.

Open Government vs Security – A Question of Balance

Never since Agent Max Smart and his Cone of Silence have Americans been so enthralled with the complex world of secrecy.  Snowden and Mnaning’s disgorging of NSA secrets has spawned a techie battle of the wits and a market flooded with encryption tools and snoop-repellent tricks.  Just this week the HuffPost tells the market impact story.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/13/nsa-backlash_n_4092804.html) Assuming that the records of these troubled times are made public in time, Snowden and Manning will go down as espionage trendsetters.

If there is good news in this unprecedented attention to the game of secrecy it is that people are paying attention to the power and elusive nature of information, especially information hidden from the public in the name of national security and/or patriotism.  The long-term impact of their disclosures may never be measured.  In the short term, we know that their whistle-blowing                                                 has made a difference.  It has raised dormant questions about the fundamental tension between the need for secrecy and need for transparency —  about what, how and who strikes the balance.

It is no secret that the secrecy ball is in the air.

When Barack Obama came into office access advocates cheered his promise that “we will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” In 2010 the President signed H.R. 553, The Reducing Over-Classification Act.

Among the requirements of H.R. 553 are these: a) a requirement that the Department of Homeland Security designate a Classified Information Advisory Office to disseminate educational materials and administer training programs to assist state, local, tribal, and private sector entities.”  b) a requirement that the Director of National Intelligence establish guidance to standardize formats for intelligence products; c) annual training for employees with original classification authority, and d)  requirement that federal Inspectors General  assess the effectiveness of agency classification policies.

By Sunshine Week 2012 the federal Information Security Oversight Office could report a sharp decline in expenditures for secrecy.  Stil,l veteran open government advocate Steven Aftergood was cautious, advising that “many classification decisions are still excluded from critical security and instances of over-classification are not hard to find.”

And then Manning and Snowden threw open Pandora’s Box of Secrets!

Alerted to issues, the public is demanding to know more about the balance between open government vs. security.  Last month the Justice Department’s inspector general issued the results of a study to determine if the government’s tendency to over-classify documents actually hurts the very national security it purports to protect.

The DOJ inspector general concluded that the study “did not find indications of widespread misclassification.”  Still, the report “did identify deficiencies with the implementation of the Department of Justice’s classification program, including persistent misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of certain classification processes by officials within Justice Department components.”

Open government advocates find some hope in the report.  For starts, they hope that the report may help to alleviate the burden of backlogged FOIA requests.  In spite of increased staff the FOIA backlog increased in one year (2010-2011) from 70,000 to 83,000.

A closer look at the internal bureaucratic processes that hinder or facilitate the flow of information by and about the government points out some basic facts:  The mechanisms are not mechanical at all, but human.  Humans not only set the policy, they interpret the policy and implement the process; they make the decisions about classification, interpret the rules, handle the requests, and deal with the public.  Right now they are probably furloughed, even as the influx of FOIA requests mounts.

At the same time, information itself is at its core a human resource, produced, recorded, organized and made accessible by humans for use by humans.

Possibly that helps to explain why determining information policy is so intriguing and yet so troublesome.

Note:  Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, provides a thoughtful and timely overview of the issue of government secrecy in his paper  “An Inquiry into the Dynamic of Government Secrecy” (https://www.fas.org/sgp/eprint/dynamics.pdf)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freedom of Information Day Explores, Expands Transparency Initiatives

Today’s news from open government advocates meeting in Washington, D.C. for Sunshine Week concerns developments with the Open Government Partnership.  This global initiative is closely related to the previously described National Action Plan currently under critical review by a host of open government nonprofits as well as by government agencies themselves.

The Open Government Partnership involves representatives and leaders of civil society organizations in a concerted effort to encourage nations to commit themselves to take action steps to facilitate transparency.

At this point OGP teams are betting organized to focus on each of the government’s commitments to openness.  The White House has agreed to set up meetings with each of the teams and the responsible officials(s) inside the agencies.  The teams and staff will work together to assess the current status of the agency’s commitment, to recommend what needs to be done, and to support the work of government officials who have made a commitment to openness.

The assessment of progress will involve establishing metrics, tweaking the drafts and using those metrics to assess progress.  The process will include representatives of the watchdog organizations and of government agencies.  One essential aspect of the project is that non-government civil society organizations will bolster agency efforts by providing technical assistance, expert advice or political pressure for change.  Follow the OGP initiative on their blog.

The Open Government Partnership will be just one of the topics on the agenda for Freedom of Information Day tomorrow, March 15, at the Newseum in Washington, DC.   This is an SRO event, but the talks and discussion will be webcast

Sunshine Week Report: One Step at a Time Towards True Tansparency

In the spirit of Sunshine Week 2013 the government watchdog leader, Open the Government,  issued today a major evaluation of the Obama Administration’s National Action Plan for Open Government.   The report assesses the Administration’s implementation of the first National Action Plan for open government.   That Plan (NAP) outlining the nation’s commitments was presented in September 2011 at the launch of the Open Government Partnership.  That Plan covered numerous issues including FOIA processing, records management, spending transparency and accountability.

Today’s report looks at the degree to which the federal government has met the letter of its commitments.  Findings are based on input from volunteers at 37 civil society organizations and academic institution.   Evaluators were asked to rate the government’s efforts to collaborate with civil society organizations, steps towards addressing civil society recommendations, and the impact and sustainability of the government’s efforts.

Bottom line, the report concludes that the government met most of the NAP’s commitments, noting that “many of the commitments were small first steps towards addressing issues.”   Based on that finding, the report calls on the federal government to take more assertive steps to “achieve the greater goal of transforming government to be open and accountable to the public.”  To do so, the report argues for the urgency of a second and bolder plan.

The report makes the point that many of the steps in the original NAP were timid, at times reflective of projects and programs already in place or underway.  Further, the report urges that those involved in preparation of a second National Action Plan open the process itself so that the input from the public and agencies be made public as the plan is developed.

The report goes on to recommend benchmarks and assistance for participating agencies that have less experience with planning for and implementing robust transparency plans.  An interesting note included in the report suggests that the US look beyond its borders for ideas.  Though the U.S. was first among nations to launch an aggressive engagement process, scores of other countries have followed that model to make commitments and to reach out to the public and civil society for input.  The U.S. should learn from other nations.

Above all, the 50+page report calls on the Obama Administration, broadly defined, to BE BOLD!  An implicit message is that the Open Government Partnership is available assistant in a process that will be closely monitored.

 

 

 

 

James Madison – Constitutional Anchor for the Digital Age

This reflection on James Madison was written several years ago in observance of Freedom of Information Day.  Because the influence of Madison seems to have faded from the limelight in recent Freedom of Information observances, it seems right and just to dust off the tribute so we remain vigilant to preserve our principles of open government in this digital age.  MT

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the nation take part.

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learner, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,” an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Saturday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.

 

 

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.

 

 

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