September 3, 2013
Open government is one of the most importanzzzzzzzzz …
I’m sorry. Did I lose you at “open government”?
That’s the thing about “government transparency”: it’s easy to write about when there isn’t enough of it and, as a result, the inevitable protest, controversy or scandal has erupted.
But if you write about successful efforts to actually open up government – where there’s nothing but a good idea that makes it easier for officials to talk and for the public to listen in – well, sometimes eyelids can start to droop a little.
I want to tell you this week about a bill I passed during the legislative session that’s been getting a lot of praise around the state. As far as I know, Texas will be the first state where something like this has been approved, certainly on a wide scale. I honestly think it’s going to reshape how officials communicate and how constituents plug into their government.
My bill would use electronic message boards to facilitate communication between leaderszzzzzzz …
Did I lose you at “facilitate communication”? Man, that always happens. What’s a better way to do this?
I know. Put yourself in an official’s shoes for a second …
Pretend for a second that you’ve been elected to your local city council, county commissioners court or school board, or that you serve on a state board or commission. OK, now ignore the nightmarish visions of zoning hearings and budget deliberations and focus on a basic question:
What kind of leader do you want to be?
Well, you want to be effective. You want to make things better for the folks who elected you. And, since you presumably aren’t imagining yourself as a dictator or Darth Vader, you know you can’t do it alone, so you want every chance to convince your colleagues to support your ideas and initiatives. That means communicating with them, persuading them and tweaking things that might need to be tweaked to win their support.
You also want to be open – because your constituents and voters like to know what’s going on, you strongly believe in their right to know what’s going on, and no one ever got elected promising to run a secret, unaccountable government.
(Having said that, I’m suddenly a little afraid the folks at Politifact are going to bust me by finding someone somewhere who was, in fact, elected on a platform of secrecy and unaccountability. In Florida, maybe.)
Finally, you want to be savvy. You want to do things in new ways, and you appreciate technology’s ability to marry things that might appear to contradict each other – things like honest dialogue between government officials and open communication with the public.
Well then, elected/appointed official, do I have a deal for you …
On Sunday, Senate Bill 1297, a bill I passed in this year’s legislative session, took effect. I worked on this bill with Attorney General Greg Abbott, and it had broad, bipartisan support in the legislature. It uses technology – specifically, official online message boards that the public can view day or night – to allow officials to actually talk with each other without violating Texas’ relatively strict open government laws.
Here’s the problem (and you’re still an elected or appointed official in this scenario): imagine you’re working a tricky ordinance or agenda item, and you want to run it by your colleague to get their input. But Texas law – appropriately – requires most types of official communication like this to take place in an open, posted public meeting.
So this simple conversation has to wait until there’s another scheduled meeting. And any changes you want to make can’t be aired until there’s yet another meeting, at which time more changes might be necessary, etc.
It’s obviously important that such deliberations occur in public. But this also isn’t the most efficient – or cost-effective – way to do what voters and taxpayers elected you to do. A lot of good work could and maybe should occur between meetings so that government can take care of the issue without it dragging on forever.
That’s where SB 1297 comes in. Under the bill, cities, school boards, commissions and other state and local governments can set up online message boards, easily viewable or accessible from their home Internet pages, where officials can talk with each other. Want some feedback from colleagues on a new ordinance? Just post your question to the message board and let them respond.
Here’s the thing: the public has to be able to monitor that message board, so folks can observe the communication as it happens. And the bill requires the communication to stay online for at least 30 days, so people don’t have to be watching every minute of the day to see what officials are saying. It also has to be archived, searchable and available to the public for at least six years after it happens.
It’s a little like the governmental entity has a standing, on-going work session, using technology to make things easier on everyone – officials, constituents, taxpayers, you name it.
The bill had a broad base of support, everyone from groups representing cities and counties to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which praised this advance for open government.
I’m really excited that this passed and it’s now in place. I have a feeling that in a few years, folks will have a hard time imagining a reason that governments DIDN’T use these kinds of technological tools to improve communication. And there’s only one real question I have:
Who’s going to be the first to use it?