Friday, June 1, 2007

Open Government Environments Encourage Ethical Behavior

“(Public Records Laws) are like statistics: You can find a way to get around
them. It comes down to a philosophy: either you are for open government, or
you’re not.”

Illinois Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler

She's right. Not only are open government laws penetrable by the astute politician, but so are the technologies that try to perpetuate it. That may sound like a defeatist statement, considering the topic of my column, but it isn't. The thought is simply incomplete because the nature of a system in place will reflect upon those who govern its details.

In other words, criminals will be criminals, but a technological open government wordflow solution that is the central engine for all legislative processes gives less wiggle room to those who might favor dishonesty. In addition, for those who have already been operating under the freedom of secrecy, the adaption to such a system is far more difficult than for those who come in as rookies under the newly implemented spirit of open government.

It is being welcomed into an arena where that spirit is implemented and alive that gives any new legislator the foundational context which incubates the philosophy to which Terry Mutchler refers. Even those prone to rationalizing white lies or "harmless" deceptions have always demonstrated stronger ethical behavior when the environment they are in encourages it. Furthermore, power is considered corruptive because the opportunities for abuse without consequence arrive by the truckload. By establishing that open government environment you all but eliminate such corruptive temptations for those who are noble by nature.

While no system is the ultimate guarantor of open government, my message remains the same: change the foundation and the rest will follow.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Leaving Newspaper Notice Habit Behind

When people talk about luddites or technophobes, a snicker swell seems to occur; after all, we're in the digital age, why are people so irrationally resistant to improvements and newer-better-faster more efficient standardizations? Being a luddite today, or any day for that matter, is much akin to calling yourself "anti-improvement" as a political label.

But we need to be very careful with labels because they're sticky, and frequently wrong.

I had to remind myself of that as I read yesterday's Bangor Daily News OpEd piece Shannon Martin: Internet no substitute for newspapers... on the internet. Never mind the irony that I and thousands of others would never have seen Dr. Martin's article were it not published online; I was amusing myself with imaginings of a Green movement backlash calling her a Tree-Killer.

By contrast, there's rationality and good intention behind Dr. Martin's position. Her strongest point is that no equipment is needed for the citizen to view a newspaper. As well, Martin and I agree on this: the public must be informed of its government's business. But she also has phobia of a change in public notice standards, imagining many fears that simply have no basis.

Her very premise, as extracted almost word for word from the book she published ten years ago on the same topic, "Newspapers of Record in a Digital Age", appears flawed, out of date and out of touch. The idea that printed newspapers create the most ideal permanency of record may have had a dying relevance a decade ago, but today it's being lowered into the ground at best, grinding to dust at worst. There are dozens of ways to maintain a permanent record, digital or otherwise, without newspapers. Does that mean we should get rid of printed newspapers tomorrow? Absolutely not.

Maine's bill to generate cost savings through internet publication standardization, LD 1878, is an excellent step in the right direction: tax revenue efficiency; human resource efficiency; publication timeliness efficiency; and, the benefit of the start of a digital age open government standardization model.

Speaking of which, Martin claims that going to an instant information model is somehow an attack on open government. But that was simply an afterthought, here are some stunners:

Pushing and Pulling
Publishing in newspapers is "pushing" the data out to citizens, while publishing online is making the citizen "pull" the data to them.

I could write a book on why this is wholly invalid, but let me start with this: What is the difference between a man using his computer to get a government body meeting date and a man driving to the grocery store to purchase a newspaper that provides the information? Speed, cost, convenience and reliability all favor the former. Want to talk subscription? That one favors the eCitizen as well.

The jaw-dropper here is that Martin seems to ignore the fact that LD 1878 has a provision so that those who don't want to use a computer can get a direct mail subscription to the information! That leaves newspaper publishing in the dust... doesn't it, or am I missing something nostalgic here?

Death to the Proud Maine Activist
How can the pride of Maine, the government activist, possibly survive if the information isn't published in the newspaper?

This is what gave me the sense that Martin is out of touch. Activists do one thing really well: they act. The fact that activists can now get all their information through a computer rather than a printed paper allows activists to be more productive while doing less. Activists use computers. If they don't, then they wait for an activist leader who does to give them information.

The fact is that the people who want this information are going to get it: purchasing a newspaper or visiting a website doesn't make a difference. Technophobes are a dying breed; their ludditiousness is being pandered to for reasons that make as much sense as outlawing newspapers because I fear getting newspaper ink all over my hands.

Newspapers are Taken More Seriously
If newspapers are independent of the government, then there's more accountability and the publishing carries more "seriousness" weight.

Not to be brash, but I'm having a hard time taking this argument seriously. I'm sure you can see that there isn't even a leaky cup there to hold the water in the first place.

Internet Content isn't Easily Accessible
"All who use the Internet know that digital media are neither fixed nor easily accessible."

I now feel a bond with the last thought of a truck driver who is about to hit a deer that refuses to budge. There is a lot to be learned here for Dr. Martin and I highly recommend that she spend some time understanding not only the second-nature intuitiveness that has been developed in the internet universe, but also the technologies of wordflow automation that are available to governments. Online archiving is here, it's available and it's more useable than any newspaper archive or microfiche ever has been.

Publishing on the Internet will be Resource-Heavy
"A system will be required that includes computing system startup, upkeep and maintenance, software, hardware, technicians, system oversight, system archiving, emergency response personnel and backup systems."

This is a looping load of filler. Computing system startup? If she's not talking about the power button, then we need more clarity. Hardware? Your government better already have it and they'll need to replace it in a couple years time regardless of LD 1878. Emergency response personnel? Is that similar to the fire truck that comes every time I find all the newspapers at the store are sold out or when the paperboy skips your house? System archiving and backup systems? Repeat after me: "redundancy." The rest of this is all software. Get a comprehensive open government software solution that automates all of the clerical processes and you have hands-free system oversight, system archiving, off-site backups, support technicians, live meeting video streams, real-time online publishing and a whole lot more.

Even if a situation arose where it would cost less to publish only via newspapers, LD 1878 fairly allows for that option to be used in lieu of internet publication.

Nielsen ratings published in December of '06 show that 70% of US citizens are online. How many of that super-majority actually purchase the newspaper? How many of the other 30% actually get a newspaper to find out about public meeting notices?

Dr. Shannon Martin has every American's best interests at heart, but her beliefs cost more tax dollars than most constituents may wish to spend. If you and your community are fine with a biennial cost of over 1.5 million dollars to additionally publish in the newspaper, that's fantastic; go for it! However, the base of all information needs to be digital, it needs to be searchable and it needs to be online first.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Government Tech Mirrors Internet Evolution

Open government's development by way of technology is a mirror image of the internet's life-path. Like most law offices or tax preparers, local governments are perpetually behind the technology curve. Normally, this is a bad thing. The diamond in the rough, however, is that the slack gives us a clear guide for predicting the future.

The Past has Passed
In the beginning, when Al Gore was being mistaken for an inventor, the internet was about connecting data and bringing it together through a single interface. Standards were developed, organizations were created and a whole new world of alphabet soup was born. This was the period of Data Unification.

Data unification in government started out as the Office of the City Clerk. It was made up of file cabinets and huge tomes of deteriorating paper. As the starting point, this isn't very unified data and certainly isn't easily accessible. Data unification for governments truly began when they started finding ways to go paperless - being in this Paperless period meant having digital data, all connected in one system. This was the birth of municipal wordflow systems. Amazingly, there are still only about five such systems out there today.

The Present in the Internet Past
The next period of the internet's evolution was Data Distribution. During this time, search technology was developed, dynamic data displays were generated and the internet actually became useable by the public for the first time.

The government tech correlation to the Data Distribution period is obvious: with unification comes rule-based smart-routing of data, workflow standardization, instant reporting and internet publication. The effect is awesome. Local government agendas and minutes are available in real-time, the press' constant flow of FOIA requests slows to a trickle, citizen awareness is raised to an all time high and for the first time in a long time, governments start feeling like they're there for the people. This period is your town's Open Government period.

This is where local government is still playing catch-up. All over the e-universe, articles are popping up demonstrating the demand for open government wordflow systems. Towns are scrambling to satisfy their constituencies at the open government level. Just wait until more small towns do what Milwaukee or Long Beach have done: the peer pressure for techno-improvement will really have the dais in a panic.

The Future in the Internet Present
Right now, the internet is in a new period. People call it Web 2.0. It's all about development through collaboration. Look at the immense video library that is or the social networks like LinkedIn and the more casual MySpace. These sites are in existence only because of the collaboration of their users. This is the Data Collaboration period.

As revolutionary as this period is for internet surferdom, so it will be for government technology. The message of data collaboration is efficiency; a primary goal for all municipalities. This is the period where governments will not only be truly connected to their constituencies in contributive scenarios never before dreamed, local governments will be using technology to work with each other to be more efficient. Collaborative procurement will be gigantic, solution sharing will be key, and tax dollars will go further than ever. This will be the period of Collaborative Governing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Leadership in Municipal Digital Makeovers

In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.
- Harry S. Truman

Leadership is a unanimously unquestioned necessity, save for the arguments of various teenagers and anarchists, particularly in scenarios riddled with the ambiguity of responsibility ownership. Quite often the problem with giving your town a digital makeover is that there is confusion about who's responsible. And let's face it, given the choice of maintaining a stable work routine or being the person where the buck of digital revolution stops, most people will jump through hoops for the former. Having the right leader in implementing a municipal wordflow system is foundational to its success.

Governments are businesses and businesses are made of people (not to mention created by the people, for the people). Never confuse those people for simple cogs in a machine. This arcane perception of corporate machinery can cause long term problems and foundational failure. It is because they are people that leadership must be fundamentally intent on making life better for everyone.

Clerical offices and IT departments (both made of people) in municipalities are not always very cohesive. This frequently is because they speak different languages (Geekish and Clerkanese) and see each other differently than they see themselves. Leadership's first goal should be to get both parties on the same boat sailing to the land of proficiency as a team. As elementary as this appears, time and again, city to city, I have experienced these two factions at odds with each other because one or the other tries to turn wordflow and workflow changes into a territorial pissing. Who wins? Perhaps only one ego. Who loses? The citizen. When the citizen loses, your municipality has failed.

This failure is to be avoided at all costs. Interpersonal friction is hard to overcome, but it is absolutely necessary. Believe it or not, those frictions are frequently smoothed by doing the exact opposite of the effect they have: collaboration. The leader needs to have the knowledge and expertise of both the Clerical process and the IT department. Make sure that tandem is in place. Designate the people who will provide that brain power and give your new team a name. If you call it the Digital Advancement Group, then have "Digital Advancement Group" meetings. Give the members ownership, thereby fostering individual leadership.

Finally, make the members understand that they are not doing this for the workplace so much as they are doing it for the citizen. Within the walls of a Village Hall, this may sound hokey, but people need to be reminded why they're there and they need to be doing the job for the right reason.

Leading a digital makeover in governments is building legacy for the leaders, the participants and the citizens. Take pride, do it right and lead for the people.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Open Government: Not Just for Big Cities Anymore

Open government initiatives at the local level for many years were only found in big cities, but the development of new affordable tech solutions have brought municipalities of all sizes into the mix. Now, small communities like Pembroke Pines, FL and Lombard, IL are providing the same searchable easy access to their legislative information as larger ones such as Philadelphia, Miami or Long Beach.

The list seems to be growing rapidly: West Allis, WI and Jonesboro, AR are announcing plans to implement new open government solutions on their websites in the coming months, while Madison, WI has just received top tech city honors for their population category from the Center for Digital Government two years in a row.

Information connectivity and efficient wordflow is paramount to the success of open government in this paperless age. As informational flow is the product of any local government’s Clerk’s Office, not surprisingly, it is quite frequently the Clerks themselves who fight to acquire the right technologies or for the changing of laws to allow for more efficient dispersal of data.

“We have been trying for some time to affect a change in the laws of the state of Wisconsin to permit our posting of agendas via [Legistar] InSite to serve as the official postings required by statute,” says Milwaukee Deputy-Clerk Jim Owczarski. “Wisconsin's Open Records Law is justifiably well-known for its breadth and depth, but, in some respects, remains blinkered by its having been drafted in an era before the broad accessibility of the Internet.”

There are still well over eight thousand local governments that need to get into the same practice of informational transparency: some with resource hurdles, some with political hurdles and some with educational hurdles. Technology usually solves resource issues. Teaching the right local government personnel what technology can do for their wordflow leaves only political roadblocks.

Luckily, one of the most effective tools against political obstructions is the progress of peers. As each small local government brings its data to the people via internet solutions, it is the smaller city with the great service that will be influencing the bigger ones nearby. As the wordflow of all local governments evolves, we will eventually enter a new age of collaborative open government where aggregated searches, mutual procurement and smart networking will yield a new standard in efficiency nationwide.