April 13, 2010
For the most part, I enjoy bumping into constituents and talking with them about pretty much anything. Some might even accuse me of being what they call a “people person.”
And I like to think of myself as downright open and accessible.
When I was mayor of Austin, I used to go to the YMCA to change clothes and shower after a run on Austin’s hike and bike trail. The Y had one of those traditional, male-style showers with about 6-8 showerheads pointing down into a big open area. There were no barriers, curtains or individual stalls for the modest (though I’m told there are now).
After a run one morning, I was alone in the shower room and was, let’s say, appropriately attired for a shower.
As I proceeded with my business, an older fellow wearing a Speedo bathing suit walked in. He looked at me, and I could tell he immediately remembered he was mad at his mayor about something.
While pulling off his clingy, wet suit, he made a beeline toward me, got uncomfortably close and growled, “You’re the mayor, aren’t you?”
I’m sure I blushed, took a step back, and replied, “No.”
This obviously confused the now equally unclothed gentleman, who sought clarification by irritably saying, “You’re Kirk Watson, right?”
I responded that, yes, I was indeed Kirk Watson. But I explained, “I’m not the mayor when I’m naked.”
Even angrier (or maybe just more confused), he stared at me for a second, blinked a couple of times, turned and stormed out, leaving me to watch his wrinkled bumper fade away.
So let me say that there are few times when elected officials shouldn’t be very open. Standing in the shower, however, is probably one.
As most Watson Wire readers know, I’ve been banging on the transparency drum for a long time.
That simple idea – being open and honest about what you’re doing – would do wonders to improve the transportation mess in Texas, help people understand how their tax dollars get spent (or misspent), and make sure no one can enact an agenda that most Texans might take issue with.
Well, there’s now a whole new way for Texas to be open with its citizens.
Across the country, local, state and federal governments are breaking new ground in transparency by providing the data they collect over the Internet. By data, I mean just about anything that ends up in a computer spreadsheet – information about schools, campaign contributions, health statistics, you name it.
Some of these spreadsheets, of course, can be very hard for people to understand. Luckily, there are companies, non-profit groups, and regular people (who are much better with computers than I am) that can develop applications to help make sense of the data. For instance, check out this application that was created to help navigate the New York City budget.
This is, and should be seen as, a great deal for the state. Agencies simply have to post data they already have, and then let folks in the real world find ways to make it meaningful to the public.
A week and a half ago, I sent a letter to a couple dozen state agencies, urging them to speed up the move toward this new era of openness.
The letter asks administrators to take a look at the data their agency collects and consider posting these databases online in a way that everyone can access them.
I view this as a big opportunity to be proactively transparent, providing information before people request it. And let’s face it – a lot of this is stuff people wouldn’t have known to ask for.
I’m hopeful that a lot of information will open up over the next few months through these sorts of efforts. And if there are problems keeping folks from being transparent, we can use the legislative session next year to fix them.
Of course, last year I authored Senate Bill 737, which would have required the state to explore posting sortable budget information online.
Providing this information would allow for everything from a Texas version of that budget website to a “Google for the budget,” where Texans could run searches to answer their own specific questions.
Unfortunately, my bill didn’t get a hearing. But I’m planning to file something like it next year. Such efforts empower citizens to go through the budget themselves and come up with ideas for saving money and solving the state’s structural budget issues.
In the 21st Century, there’s no excuse not to use every technological tool we can get our hands on – and all the expertise in this state – to make government run as cleanly, openly, and transparently as possible.