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Open Government Isn't Just a Talking Point

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Everyone supports "open government." And it seems, these days, that most elected officials enjoy talking about how they support open government and transparency. But how many of us are really doing everything we can to do so?

Here are a couple of easy ways we are helping to bridge the gap between citizen and government in South Orange that I hope can serve as perhaps a starting point for others looking to do the same -- as well as for citizens who want to push their local officials to embrace the benefits of new technology.

But before I get started, it's important to note that these ideas (and plenty more) for the most part save taxpayer money and make government more transparent at the same time. Using the right technological platforms, you don't need to sacrifice lots of money to be more transparent, and no longer do governments have to sacrifice transparency to save money.

Open Budget data: In South Orange this year, for the first time (and one of the only municipalities to even do so), we released our $32 million municipal budget in a downloadable, editable Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which allows the data to not only be understood and manipulated by anyone, but, being in a standard format, can be tied into other software or applications. We kept the formulas embedded in the spreadsheet so people could manipulate the numbers and see the impact on the total budget as well as each household. I joked at our 2012 State Of The Village that it allows someone to play Village administrator for a day, and it's really true.

We need to set a new standard for municipal government transparency in New Jersey -- helping citizens have access to easy budget info, and governments easy access to people's ideas and priorities about how their taxes are to be spent. Making a budget available online in one of a wide variety of interactive formats could allow residents to submit their own idea budgets, which helps us as elected officials know what a broader range people want (helping mitigate Squeaky Wheel Syndrome), and also helps educate people about our budget process and the tough decisions we are faced with.

Public Document Accessibility: Many municipalities are facing historic numbers of Open Public Records Act requests that can cost a lot of staff time and divert resources away from municipal or statutory responsibilities of Clerk's Offices (especially in the not infrequent cases of corporations/people taking advantage of the system). Instead of trying to implement some regulations that could inhibit the flow of public information to citrizens, there is another way to help mitigate the costs of this.

In South Orange, we have done this by having more than five years of meeting videos online, along with a searchable database of all of our minutes, agendas, resolutions, ordinances, proclamations (and more) that allows citizens very easy access to a wealth of public documents, which cuts down on the taxpayer expense of having staff find documents, and also provides information instantly to anyone interested. Anytime a special committee is created to research an issue, all of the minutes, reports and peripheral information is placed online. When we reviewed our Village Charter, hundreds of pages of documentation (that otherwise would surely have been OPRA'd numerous times) was put online to help anyone instantly understand the process. This is the bedrock to greater participation, and helps pave the way for rolling out even more participatory processes, like online voting platforms that allow the public to weigh in on any number of issues.

To further help with the OPRA requests, we are looking into implementing an online form that would help residents file records requests, help us manage it (and give us some analytics) and also make every prior request searchable and instantly available. So if someone files a duplicate request, it is filled instantly online (giving easier access and reducing taxpayer expenses). One such example of a form is written with open source software at Open Up NYC.

Partnerships. Helping bring some of the bigger open data initiatives from cities, around public transit schedules, water/utility usage, etc., to the smaller level that towns can adapt and adopt is key. There are a lot of open data initiatives happening around the country (StreetsBlog, San Francisco Data, Open 311, Code for America) and ensuring small towns are working with larger cities to share resources is key. I'm working with the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and others to try and facilitate as many of those connections as possible -- there are so many great ideas out there, the best thing we can do is learn from each other.

Communication: Being an elected official, especially at the municipal level, and truly actively communicating is actually not as easy as it originally seems, and a number of legal grey areas make it difficult for elected officials who don't have a large staff to really use media the right way.

There is a legal wall you need to put up between public and political, and that means a lot of duplication. I have separate email lists, for example, from people who have emailed my municipal email account, versus emails collected politically or personally. I've found it incredibly helpful to use a piece of cloud-based software called NationBuilder, that inexpensively consolidates my website management, events, fundraising, blog, email blasts, voter file, social media and more into one online campaign dashboard. Using my campaign email list of a few thousand people, I'm able to stay in touch with residents and the larger community easily, help people understand the issues that are going on in town and spread the good news when we do have it. However, supporting these types of initiatives requires either self-funding (which as an unpaid, student loan debt ridden elected official, I simply cannot do) or constantly raising money. Fortunately, some of these tools are much more inexpensive now, and this reduced cost means that its easier than ever to build a semi-professional communication platform, even if its just you and a few volunteers.

And staying active on social media is one of the easiest (and cheapest) things you can do as an elected official, though yet again, is disincentiviezd because of the unclear legal issues. Pretty much anything regulating social media for public officials is based off evolving case law, not clear and defined statutory guidelines. But for example, during the storms last year, I had hundreds of interactions with residents looking for information, giving me information and discussing, over both Facebook and Twitter. Although this wasn't through an official village social media platform, I can use my personal Facebook and Twitter to connect with people quickly, but have to take precautions as well -- for example, redirecting all people who ask questions about municipal business through private message to my municipal email account.

Sending out short video updates over social media and email (for example: State of Village Video and my latest video update) and writing up thorough but approachable summaries of larger issues has garnered a lot of positive feedback from people who feel as though they have more information about what's happening than they ever have. And to a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people."

I think part of the takeaway here is that not everything constructive to more transparent government has to literally happen through the government bureaucracy, but rather it's up to us, as public officials to work within the confines of the system we are part of, and figure out the best way to do it for the people we serve.

Municipalities range in size and the amount of resources they can allocate to working on an issue like this, and even range on their interest to do so. However, if we can bring smaller towns together, sometimes with the support of larger cities, make available the failure and success stories of initiatives we've tried, and show those officials less enthusiastic about these innovations that the people support it, we can lower the barrier of entry into it and do our part in helping to truly turn Government into Government 2.0.