Even when elected officials and municipal employees are pushing back, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes due to fear, an individual citizen can find a way to reduce confusion by sharing information with fellow citizens. Lack of understanding, lack of transparency, leads to confusion and mistrust, it happens everywhere.
I recently decided to take on a project in my home town, at no cost to the town, that would seek to eliminate citizen confusion by releasing open government information. My goals were to create a simple, low-cost, immediate payback, process that others could follow in their own towns and cities.
First, some background. My town has a population of approximately 15,000 citizens, mostly apathetic when it comes to politics (around 30% average voter turnout), and has a small group of citizens that are very negative that have a discussion board where they mostly focus on personally attacking elected officials. In other words, it’s not that much different from many small towns across America and elsewhere.
How did I approach this?
- I first evaluated the information that was publicly available on our town website. I will avoid critiquing the web site design but will note that there is a great deal of information available on events, meeting minutes, and more. The town is not against sharing information. However, it does not necessarily understand or support changes that would make information easier to find. Education is required, and I am slowly working on this part of the problem.
- I spoke briefly with the town manager about the need for more transparency to reduce confusion and ensure accurate information is available to citizens. The manager is smart, a good town manager, but doesn’t really want to spend time on making information available as he has a belief that people will simply not read it or twist the information around. Education, as I noted, is required, but so too is a demonstration. It was time to begin building a proof of concept, demonstrating that, in time, open information can play a role in fixing trust issues and increasing positive involvement in local government.
- Define how I will measure if the project is successful. I have two goals:
- Increase voter turnout over the course of the next two years. Voter turnout numbers are well documented and I am hoping to demonstrate that more information, more clearly articulated, will get more people to the voting booths.
- Increase participation in town meetings. On average, fewer than 50 people attend these in person.
- Increase participation in committees. The majority of committees formed in the town are populated by the same 20 people, we need to increase engagement.
- Create the platform for sharing information. Since my goal is to keep costs as close to zero as possible, I went with a simple WordPress.com installation which you can view here. Key points:
- I am using the free WordPress.com site.
- I did not buy a domain name, most people in my town will find it without a non-Wordpress.com domain name.
- I found a simple theme, added one AD to hopefully cover some of my FOI costs.
- WordPress.com is fairly easy to use, but I do know some will struggle with it. However, I still recommend it for this type of solution.
- Went to my town manager’s office and made freedom of information requests for contracts and salary information. I started here because this is information, in my town, that is always being discussed.
- I received PDFs of these documents within 10 days and have been releasing them, starting this week, one document a day. I am exporting the documents to text so that I can also include that information and releasing slowly so that people have something new to find every day.
- Marketing: I am sharing the information through the town’s Facebook pages (yes, we have more than one) and through the discussion group I mentioned earlier.
How is it doing at this early stage? Well, I am receiving between 150 and 250 views a day, not bad I guess, and a couple of local politicians have asked me about the Open Winthrop site. It is simply a start, of course, and it is too early to demonstrate if this simple, low-cost, approach can improve citizen participation, but I am optimistic.
What’s next, you ask? I added a FREE discussion board today as I want to create a constructive discussion. I have not even announced it yet, but hope that in a couple of weeks I will begin to see some conversations occurring there. Beyond that, I have a list of FOI requests a mile long that I will be slowly requesting/receiving. The education process is underway.