Symposium panelist says local efforts show potential but Austin not open government leader
by Mark Henricks
New technology and new ideas promise to make government more open than ever, perhaps even someday replacing politicians with direct decision-making by citizens, according to panelists in a discussion of innovation in open government held this month at Austin City Hall. At the same time attendees were warned of the risk of disenfranchising those who lack access to technology. And, while panelists lauded Austin’s image as a center of technology, the city government’s reputation for openness and transparency was said to be unremarkable.
The session took place April 9, 2015, as part of the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium. This is the second city-sponsored symposium since 2012, when all City of Austin elected officials agreed to deferred prosecution after an Austin Bulldog investigation into their open meetings violations.
Kerry O’Connor, the city’s first chief innovation officer, moderated the panel. She was joined by Mary Beth Goodman, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C, think tank, Center for American Progress, and Nathaniel Heller, managing director of the Results for Development Institute, a Washington, D.C. economic development research group.
Cities like Austin are on the front line in the effort to make government more transparent, according to Goodman, who was formerly director for international economic affairs on the White House national security staff. “The more we’ve gotten into the process, the more we’ve learned that citizens want to engage first and foremost at the city level,” Goodman said.
Heller, much of whose work has dealt with less-developed countries around the world, cited crowdsourcing as an example of openness that is well-suited for city government. “This is being experimented with nationally, but it’s working better at the local level,” he said. Examples of using crowdsourcing in government include holding challenges and contests to get citizens to contribute their ideas about how to solve problems delivering needed city services.
O’Connor, who took over the city innovation office in 2014 after working for the U.S. State Department, said Austin has employed crowdsourcing-type tools with mixed success. “It is a nascent movement and takes a little practice to get it right,” she said. City efforts to encourage citizen contributions include CodeNEXT, an initiative to create a new land development code addressing affordability and other issues. The innovation office partnered with three volunteer working groups to generate recommendations for the program, but it still a work in progress.
Openness impedes efficiency?
O’Connor speculated whether transparency was overvalued in government, given that requiring more openness may reduce efficiency. “It seems sometimes that this value of transparency trumps all,” she said, adding, “I sometimes wonder if this is a false tradeoff.” Ideally, she continued, transparency could be achieved without affecting efficiency. “Can we make it more transparent, more efficient and more effective all in one fell swoop?” she asked.
Open access to government data can help with all those, according to Heller, who in a previous position handled Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for a State Department agency. He acknowledged that FOIA requests can be cumbersome and costly to fulfill in large numbers. “What open data does is make information public and try to cut down on FOIA requests,” he said. “You’re reducing the headache factor so costs go down, but openness goes up.”
Goodman, however, cautioned against confusing open government with e-government, which is the practice of giving citizens ways to interact digitally with governments as well as using technology for internal government operations. “E-government is about convenience and making the burden of oversight a little simpler for the government,” Goodman said. “Open government is about collaboration, taking ideas from citizen groups and combining with the structure of government.”
The e-government movement
As an example of collaboration and open government, she pointed to We The People, a program of the Obama White House that set up an online platform enabling citizens to draft petitions and collect signatures to call for government action. The threshold of signatures required for consideration was raised from 5,000 to 100,000, but the program remains popular, Goodman said. “We’ve seen a lot of changes come about as a result of these citizen petitions,” she said. “It’s forced government to become more reflective.”
A more extreme example of participatory, technology-enabled government is DemocracyOS. This combination of political movement and open source software development began in Argentina in 2012, when a group of tech-minded citizens created a tool that helped voters learn about, debate and vote on bills presented in the country’s Congress. The software has since been used several different countries to, among other things, debate creation of a national constitution in Tunisia and develop Mexico’s national open government policy.
Heller said the fledgling movement is on the verge of establishing itself as a viable political force by winning seats on the Buenos Aires city council. He speculated that it might have a long way to run and significantly change politics on the way. “Are we heading toward using technology as a middle man to get rid of the politician?” Heller asked.
The digital divide concern
Goodman, however, said that employing technology to increase self-governance risked leaving out those without access to technology. The people who respond to government via digital channels tend to be the educated, affluent elite, she said. “Technology is wonderful and can empower and do great things, but there’s always that need to find the underserved portion of any community that doesn’t have access to that technology,” she said.
Elsewhere in the discussion, the panelists talked about ways for citizens to participate in government using relatively low-tech methods. For instance, Heller said in Africa pollsters are able to send questions to citizens via text message, a technology available to all cellphones, and receive feedback using the same channels. “They are able to take a pulse on a regular basis on all kinds of public issues,” he said.
Social media’s role in elections
Technology can be a limiting factor in Austin, according to a comment directed to panelists by one of the people attending the discussion. The commenter, who identified himself only as an unsuccessful candidate for election to the school board, said that other candidates’ skill with social media, rather than their expertise on issues, was the deciding factor in the election. “I’m not that social,” he said. “I would have been the best candidate. But the ones who had the most fans on Facebook won.”
Goodman responded by noting that the issue is neither new nor confined to school board elections. “You’re going to have people who have more access and people who know how to use social media more effectively,” she said. “That’s not bad. The challenge is figuring out how to counterbalance this a little bit so you have tools that will be open for everyone.”
The panelists said there are low-cost tools and services available to help candidates who lack budgets and technical savvy to create polished online and social media presences. One example they pointed to is NationBuilder, an online tool for fundraising and political campaigns that provides website templates and integrates social media and e-mail communications. It charges sliding fees based on the number of people a campaign is trying to reach, starting at $19 a month for an effort to e-mail 200 people.
The questioner continued, suggesting that the problem was not the technology, but the way the current electoral process rewarded candidates for sociability rather than effectiveness. Heller responded: “I don’t know a time when popular politicians didn’t do well. The medium may have changed.”
Striving to overcome the past
Austin, clearly, has changed since just a few years ago when the city’s top elected officials faced the possibility of prosecution for breaking open meetings laws. However, hosting an Open Government Symposium, or even a second one, does not by itself put Austin in the top ranks of open cities, according to Heller, who founded or co-founded a number of open government entities and is on the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership, with members in 65 countries.
In the United States, Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have been leaders, investing significantly in open government initiatives including open data and participatory budgeting, Heller said. “From my own perch, Austin isn’t typically mentioned in the same breath as the leading cities I mentioned above and strikes me as more ‘off the map’ when it comes to open government,” he said in an e-mail to The Austin Bulldog following the conference.
However, the fact that a less-prominent city was holding an open government symposium is one factor that encouraged him to attend, Heller said. “The potential is there and is quite exciting,” he said. “My hope is that Austin makes strides to be included in that cohort of ‘leading’ open government cities moving forward.”
Related Bulldog coverage:
Ethics Bills Face Complex Dynamics: Open government legislation would move public official investigations, open financial reports, Part 4 in a Series, April 20, 2015
Open Government Aids Defendants Too: Criminal cases opened through Michael Morton Act make big difference for prosecutors as well, Part 3 in a Series, April 15, 2015
County Attorney Reports Lessons Learned: His investigation of Austin City Council’s open meetings violations resulted in improvements, Part 2 in a Series, April 15, 2015
Why Acting Ethically, Legally Matters: Many a high-profile scandal persisted for years because nobody stepped forward, Part 1 in a Series, April 14, 2015
Link: Video: 2015 Open Government Symposium: Innovations