Commentary: Local Governments Should Embrace Radical Openness

[This commentary is written as part of Sunshine Week, a week in which news organizations try to highlight efforts to use freedom of information laws.]

These are troubled times.  Trust in government is low.  The nation is split between states judged to be “red” — Republican and conservative — and “blue” — Democratic and liberal.

Radio and cable TV and the op/ed pages of our newspapers are filled with empty-calories arguments.  You can literally count the lies as they fly past.

It’s a wave of slime, and it’s getting on you, the friends and neighbors who do the important work of running our local governments and schools.  The smaller the unit of government, the less important political affiliation becomes.

There isn’t a Republican way to fill a pothole.  There’s no Democratic way to teach math, or dig a water line.

(I’m not an idiot.  I imagine there aren’t many Democrats on the Oswego County government payroll, not after 150 years of continuous Republican leadership.  But there’s a difference between hiring your allies and, say, taking millions of dollars from special interests to mangle the goal of health care for all Americans or letting oil industry lobbyists write bills for Congress while pocketing their big donations.)

We’ve begged our national and state leaders to be more open.  And some changes have been made.  Congress and the state Legislature both webcast and broadcast their sessions and the state Legislature webcasts their committee meetings. But courts remains closed to modern coverage and many of the other changes they’ve made have been largely cosmetic.

This has all made life a bit harder for you as you sit on town or village boards, city common councils and boards of education.  And it has discouraged average folks.  They’ve always felt locked out of government but it’s gotten worse.  That feeling is turning to anger, sarcasm, alienation.  A few folks have grabbed their guns.

It is no coincidence that movements on the political right and left seek to change the way political business is conducted.

The good news is that this change can begin here, now.

You can make a difference by embracing radical openness.  By radical openness, I mean that you should let the public see everything in time for them to be able to act on what they see and provide you with feedback.  You don’t do these things now, but you can, and you should.

Here’s my set of recommendations for a more open government.

1.  Webcast everything.  Webcast the regular monthly meeting, but also the work session.  Both are public.  Webcast committee meetings.  Webcast the meetings of other panels, such as Zoning Boards and Planning Commissions. It’s simple to do.  It doesn’t have to be a full video production.  A laptop and a webcam will do the job.

Schools in particular are ripe for this.  They have video gear and can have either an administrator or student volunteers operate the camera(s).

2.  Provide the documents.  Members of local government board and boards of education receive a thick packet of documents before each meeting.  Here’s a simple rule:  If a document is subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act, why wait to be asked?  Why play hide and seek with the information? Post the backup documents on your website ahead of the meeting, so people can understand what they’re watching.  Post the agendas ahead of time and post the minutes when they’re done.

3.  Set up a simple way on your website to receive comments, suggestions and complaints.  Post every single one on the website unless the poster asks you not to.  Add to it the followup information.  When people don’t see things getting done, they assume things are not getting done.  Here’s a simple, free way to show them.

If you do these three things, you’ll be miles ahead of where you are now.

But there’s more you can do to embrace radical openness.

4.  Post everything.  Building permits? Code violations? School performance data?  Publish it to your website.  Costs you nothing.  It allows people to see what might be happening in their neighborhood or in their school.

5.  Take people on virtual tours.  Most people have no idea how departments of government or schools operate.  Show them.  Most cell phones have serviceable video cameras on them.  That’s all you need to show me how many vehicles are in the DPW garage.

6.  Talk.  Your website is a publication.  Publish with it.  Daily notes, occasional opinion pieces, blog posts, photos, whatever.  Just do it.  I recently offered a free blog to members of a local government or school body.  They all turned me down.  (The offer still stands, for them or any local government or school official) If you get a chance to talk to folks in a different place, jump at it.

7.  Embrace social media.  The world lives on Facebook.  Your government or school should, too.  There is simply no faster way to get the word out than to post it on Facebook to people who want the information.  And it’s one of the best ways to get fast feedback.

8.  Use the content you’ve already got.  Schools, in particular, generate a lot of content.  Teachers take pictures all the time of events in school.  Publish them.  Give us all a look.

Did you notice something here?  Radical openness costs you not a single penny.  I’m just asking you to use the tools you already have.

I go to many public meetings every month.  I have been to meetings where I have been the only person in the audience.  Most of the time, the people at meetings are only those people who need to be there.

It is a frequent lament from the elected officials that it’s a shame people won’t come to meetings.

It should be clear by now that people are not coming and will not be coming.

You have to go to them.

Now, you have some ideas on how to do that.

Will you?

1 Comment

  1. Great suggestions Dave. I hope our local governing bodies, particularly school districts, get the message. The people paying the bills have the right to know the facts, not just what the admins want us to see.

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