Mayor Emanuel Must Shed Old Paradigms for True Transparency Reform

by Nicol Turner Lee, Ph.D.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is under fire for his office’s denial of Freedom of Information Act requests, with critics in the local and national press and blogs taking the mayor to task for shielding public records from public view. Underscoring this lapse in transparency is Emanuel’s vow to foster “the most open, accountable and transparent government that the City of Chicago has ever seen.” Cities like Boston, Phoenix, and Seattle all routinely release such information, according to reporting by the Chicago Tribune’s David Kidwell, implying that they do transparency better.

This is not to suggest there has been no progress on transparency under Mayor Emanuel. Indeed, he has backed the release of large amounts of government data, including the June release of salary information for all city employees. The city’s September release of city-wide crime statistics for the past decade not only helps crime-fighting agencies, but also journalists, advocates and businesses create more targeted programs to address local concerns.

Chicago, like its big city peers, just needs to decide if government transparency is a core attribute of its government. For the Emanuel Administration, releasing some data and not others does little to shed the old paradigms of closed door politics where waste, government fraud and abuse were the norm.

State and local governments lag severely behind federal government due to fragmented policies and technical systems. Consequently, citizens are deprived of opportunities to participate in the processes and deliberations of local government. This is ironic since our democracy has always been grounded in localism.

Releasing government data is only one way of ensuring effective open government. The White House and federal agencies regularly solicit citizen feedback on pending policy matters and use the Internet to embrace the public’s expertise by encouraging citizens to turn government data into useful online tools and applications. The website allows residents to track Recovery Act spending and report abuse or fraud. The website is regularly updated with data sets provided by federal agencies and showcases citizen-developed apps by winners of contests and other challenges.

As the former architect of President Obama’s open government plans, Mayor Emanuel can go even further by consulting the following recommendations on how to put government content to creative use, as other American cities are doing.

Create opportunities for developing public good applications. New York is a prime example of a city developing public good applications. Mayor Bloomberg recently announced New York’s third application development competition, NYC BigApps 3.0, with over 750 datasets for developers to create web or mobile applications using official city data. The NYC Open Data site includes datasets as varied as maps of city parks and parking facilities, restaurant inspection reports and school attendance and enrollment statistics by district. Public-private-citizen partnerships can generate ideas for meaningful public purpose apps that can improve the quality of life within communities, but that can’t happen if cities don’t open up information to the public in the first place and make data available in standardized formats.

Establish flexible procurement procedures that allow for more off-the-shelf purchasing and easier contracting and promote innovative application solutions. Easing the burden of excessive paperwork and lengthy bureaucratic approvals associated with the purchase of information technology and data management software can strengthen innovation in local governments interested in improving their transparency. In Washington, D.C., the Apps for Democracy program funded the development of apps outside of normal procurement process. Structured as a contest, the innovative program was aimed at developers where mash-up data and software existed alongside traditional procurement processes.

By following just these two recommendations, government services and operations can become more efficient. For example, the city could lower transaction costs for procedures such as business license renewals and property tax payments by using updated, open data tools. Innovative applications geared toward the transit, health care and employment sectors can also minimize harms produced by over-congested roadways, busy emergency waiting rooms and busy job centers.

Tackling open government also helps cities address a more critical issue impacting local economies and quality of life- low broadband adoption rates among our nation’s citizens. Nationwide, two-thirds of households currently subscribe to broadband service. However, only about half of minority and low-income households have adopted this increasingly vital technology. Many non-adopters do not see the Internet’s value. Increasing the availability of resident-focused government content and services at the local level could offer non-users a clear, tangible value proposition for adopting broadband.

Having run for and won office as a reformer, Mayor Emanuel has a broad mandate for making Chicago’s government more transparent and accountable by making a commitment to digital openness that furthers the interests of this great city. Making civic and social data available in standardized formats that lead to the productive public use of public information is something that everyone can agree is a public benefit.

If Mayor Emanuel wishes to foster a more transparent Chicago, he must not only continue the release of city data, but ensure that it is put to creative uses that serve the public.

Nicol Turner-Lee is Vice President and Director, Media and Technology Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. More information on Nicol Turner-Lee and her work can be found at the Joint Center website.


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