Sunshine 2.0 – What do you expect of your local government online in support of transparency, participation, and collaboration?

Update: Drafting guide from here.

Please offer your comments on the blog or via our short survey.

The other week, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released an excellent report on Government Online. When I left Minnesota state government in 1997 after launching our main portal in 1995, I left because the sense I got was a clear interest in “services first, democracy later.” Like many years later. My heart is in democracy and community building, not collecting taxes online or automating service delivery.

So I did a victory dance when when “48% of internet users have looked for information about a public policy or issue online with their local, state or federal government” topped  Pew Internet’s survey list, just above “46% have looked up what services a government agency provides.”

It turns out that Americans are demanding both services and democracy online. In fact, according the study, 87% of American feel it is very or somewhat important for a government agency to “provide general information to the public on its website” and 85% believe government should “allow people to contact agency official through the website.” Wow. Americans don’t normally agree that much.

Getting informed and having a say on public issues is not what most government websites give publicity to today. It is still a services first world that treats citizens as customers. This is particularly true at the local level where city council and school board decision-making information and data related to transparency and accountability are often more difficult to find than needles in the haystack. Agendas and minutes can usually be found, but not always in a timely manner and often missing are the key public documents and handouts used by our elected officials (some model governments makes everything available systematically). While many provide information on their democratic processes, it is not what it could or should be if you believe in the public as participants and with government “of and by” not just “for” the people.

So what should it be? What do we as citizen ask of our governments online?

There are many fresh reports on what a government could do with so-called social media, but what is actually so important that we should grade our governments on their activities online?

To that end, is working with the national League of Women Voters to assist them in framing a new guide in their Openness in Government series tentatively titled Sunshine 2.0. The guide will be geared toward use by local League chapters in evaluating and starting a local conversation on local online support for democracy.

My personal sense (as an “expert”) is that we need to start somewhere. Finger in the wind alert.

That means we need to figure out what to measure and to try to give some ranking to what is most important. I’ll be taking the first cut at a draft. While we could identify hundreds of measures to judge the role of our local governments, civic organizations, and media online with their support for online transparency, participation, and collaboration (yes, the pillars in the Federal Open Government Directive), you have to start somewhere. We also need to be open to more rigorous standards over time. Just as students must improve with each year, so must the institutions of democracy.

So, to get the conversation started (please comment via the blog, our short survey, on the CityCamp Exchange, or on GovLoop), here are some proposed “indicator” measures that should separate the wheat from the chafe. There might be 100 measures, but I’d like to start with measures that show increasing levels of attention to creating important opportunities for effective and meaningful public participation.

Rough list of ten “indicator” digital sunshine features to quickly determine if your local government is a leader.

1. Government has a simple e-mail newsletter (and/or blog) with regular updates about “what’s new” on the website and other key news. (Bonus: Updates also provided via Twitter or a Facebook page.)

2. Government provides all elected officials a government e-mail address and lists them publicly. (Bonus: Requires its use for all public business.)

3. Government has a uniform calendar of all public meetings and provides all meeting agendas online. (Bonus: Agendas include links to all meeting documents and are placed online as soon as they are distributed to public body members.)

4. Most public meetings are webcast live in video or audio and available on-demand for at least one year. (Bonus: All public meetings are digitally recorded and placed online.)

5. There is an easy to understand “get involved” or democracy section available from the home page. It explains the governing process, how to participate, and how to contact/connect with elected officials if you seek to change how something works (versus channeling a service question or complaint to the right department.)

6. Government site provides personalized e-mail alerts of other notices on “what’s new” across their site. (This is normally the number one tool I recommend for government to provide the public “timely access” to government information when they can still act on it.)

7. Each elected official has their own section on the website for them to use in governance to communicate with their constituents that they (the official) can edit/have easily updated. (Bonus: The government provides an e-mail announcement list for each elected official to use and/or a blog with an e-mail notice option.)

8. The government links to community sites including local media sites, civic organizations, local online forums/blogs, etc. (Bonus: The government has worked out relationship with local library or other organization to maintain civically focused directory of local links and community content.)

9. The government uses online survey and input options beyond the general web comment form or e-mail box.

10. The government hosts two-way interactivity among the public and the government OR the government participates actively in two-way opportunities for community dialogue (and link to those places in their community links directory). (Bonus: Government has adopted social media policy which clearly encourages civil servants to provide information and answer questions online just as they would do in-person or on the telephone.)

11. Government provides open data sets for unrestricted download and use. OK, so there are 11. I want the open data promoters to tell us why this is more important than the items above. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Sunshine 2.0 – What do you expect of your local government online in support of transparency, participation, and collaboration?”

  1. This is great. Liked the reference to wheat (Separating), Needle in the haystack, Finger in the wind, and the humbling “expert” statement. Can tell your from the Midwest.
    My two cents:
    How about a directory based on city/county/state/branch which identifies each government employee by name, telephone number, and username, but utilizes an email address which incorporates the persons first intial/last name, and SALARY as the format.


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