Even engaged citizens in Oakland, Calif., didn’t know the city had a Public Ethics Commission, let alone what its purpose was, when I joined its ranks three years ago. And people who did know about it didn’t have many nice things to say: Local blogs sneered at its lack of power and few politicians feared its oversight. Created in 1996 as a watchdog organization responsible for opening up city government, the commission had become just another element of Oakland’s cumbersome, opaque bureaucracy.
It’s easy to see why. Technology and media have dramatically changed our expectations for what defines transparency and accountability. For example, in the past, walking into City Hall, making an official request for a public record, and receiving it in the mail within two weeks meant good, open government. Now, if an Internet search doesn’t instantly turn up an answer to your question about local government, the assumption often is: Government’s hiding something.
This is rarely the case. Consider that Oakland has more than 40,000 boxes full of paper documents housed in locations throughout the city, not to mention hundreds of thousands of email messages generated each year. Records management is a serious—and legal—issue, and it's fallen way behind the times. In an age when local municipalities are financially stretched more than ever before (38 US cities have declared bankruptcy since 2010), the ability of cities to invest in the technology, systems, and staff—and to facilitate the culture change that cities often need—is a real, major challenge.
Yet, for the innovators, activists, and leaders within and outside city government, this difficult moment is also one of significant opportunity for change; and many are seizing it.
Last month, the Transparency Project of the Public Ethics Commission—a subcommittee that I initiated and have led as chair for the last year—released a report detailing just how far Oakland has come and how far we have to go to create a culture of innovation, accountability, and transparency throughout all levels of the city.
Collaboration Is Critical
What comes through the report loud and clear is the important role that collaboration between city staff, the community, nonprofits, and others played in shifting expectations and establishing new standards—including the momentum generated by the volunteer-led “City Camps,” a gathering of citizens, city government, and businesses to work on open government issues, and the recent launch of RecordTrac, an online public records request tracking system built by Code for America Fellows that departments throughout the city have successfully adopted. RecordTrac makes information available to everyone, not just the person who requested it.
Ideas and Experiments Matter
Innovators didn’t let financial circumstances get in the way of thinking about what even a cash-strapped, problem-plagued city like Oakland could do to meet the new expectations of its citizens to find information quickly and easily online. The commission’s executive director Whitney Barazoto, along with her collaborators, didn’t think “small and practical”; they chose “big and futuristic” instead. Most importantly, they sought to experiment with new ways of spreading ideas and engaging the public in discussions—far beyond the standard (and often ineffective) “three minutes at the mic” practice at public meetings.
Last June, the Public Ethics Commission held a hearing unlike any you have seen from a local government. Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and a leading advocate for open government, kicked things off with a 30-minute tutorial on the changing nature of government. He kept the packed City Hall chamber and the commission on the edge of our seats, and asked us to consider the implications of a government that acted less like a vending machine (“shake it till you get what you want”) and more like the Apple App Store (where the information you need is at your fingertips). Representatives from local and national organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation and California Forward, spoke about innovative open government efforts across the state and around the country, while local open-government volunteer activists shared what they’re doing to bridge the public’s needs for information and the city’s needs for tech talent. The hearing also incorporated social media so that people who couldn’t attend in person could participate and give feedback via Twitter and text messaging. I haven’t had as much as fun as I did chairing the hearing and asking our volunteers in the “digital bullpen” to share with the audience live at City Hall what people were saying online. The future had arrived.
Strength-based Culture Change Works
The “Toward Collective Transparency” report details the history of the innovative efforts to increase transparency within the City of Oakland and offers a number of recommendations for what’s next. The most defining feature of this report is its acknowledgment of the significant cultural changes that are taking place within the city, and around the country, in the way we think about the role of government, citizens, and the type of engagement and collaboration that can—and should—exist between the two.
It’s easy to get caught up in what’s gone wrong, but our subcommittee made a choice early on not to get buried in the past. We capitalized on our commission’s strengths rather than our weaknesses, leaving “deficit thinking” behind so that we could think creatively about what the commission and city were uniquely positioned to do.
Why does all this matter?
Last year, John Bridgeland and Peter Orszag, former officials in the administrations of President Obama and President George W. Bush, wrote an article in The Atlantic titled, “Can Government Play Moneyball?” They pointed out the need to measure the impact of government spending using the evidence-based statistical approach that the Oakland A’s own manager, Billy Beane, made famous. They argued that the same kind of scarcity Billy faced building a competitive baseball team is not unlike the scarcity that the federal government is facing, and they hope it will help government break some of its own traditions. Governments at all levels—city, county, state and federal—are all facing revenue challenges, but we can’t let that stop progress and change.
It takes a lot more than data and technology to improve the way government operates and engages with its citizens; it demands vision and leadership. We need innovators who can break traditions and make the future come alive through collaboration, ideas, and experiments.