09/30/2011 06:12 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

Good Government Through the Looking Glass: Transparency and Accountability

Last week was the launch of Cook County's new Open Data website. The website makes an unprecedented amount of County information available to the public, all available with just a few clicks of a mouse. The site provides access to a wealth of information from 40 departments, and the information runs the gamut from foreclosure data to court documents to public safety statistics.

The featured data sets on the home page include a Year-to-Date map of Foreclosures in Cook County and a Map of Outpatient Registrations with in the Cook County Health and Hospital System (CCHHS) -- the beginning of a more accurate look at who uses CCHHS resources.  The data sets reflect the most up-to-date information available throughout the county, including offices of separately elected officials and CCHHS.  This information will be updated and expanded going forward ensuring that people always have access to the most recent information. 

Most importantly, the Open Data site provides County residents with the opportunity to engage with their government and contribute their own feedback and ideas to the Open Data initiative. The site allows users to comment, rate and request additional datasets. Residents are also empowered to create their own unique maps and charts and they are free to share their contributions on social networks, or embed them on their community and personal blogs.

The Open Data website is just one of our administration's new transparency initiatives. A key focus of our administration has been to change the culture of Cook County government by putting into place performance-based metrics that increase transparency and the level of service provided to our residents.

Earlier this month, we worked with the Assessor's office and the Board of Review to introduce Cook County's first online filing system for assessment appeals, which will allow taxpayers to contest their property tax assessments without going downtown and dealing with confusing legalese and red tape (have to give them some cred here). Instead, they can easily file property assessment appeals on-line from the comfort of their own homes. Collaborative efforts such as these are making the Cook County tax system more open and accessible to the tax payers, and that is a significant step forward.

In keeping with this transparency initiative, the Cook County Administration also recently released the preliminary budget estimates for 2012. We also instituted a policy which would require annual preliminary budgets to be released by July 31st each year. Such a process is a first for Cook County, but by requiring preliminary budget estimates is the first step in implementing a more transparent and responsible budget process. By doing so, we can have a better sense of our financial landscape and we also better engage our stakeholders, including County residents, in the budget process.

Ultimately, transparency is important not only because it keeps people honest, but because the more information the public has, the more connected they are with their government and the people they elect to public office.